Blog - Beach House Rehab Center
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October 26, 2018

What Fentanyl Abuse Does to Your Body

One of the most powerful painkillers available, fentanyl has profound effects on the body, both when used in a hospital setting or as prescribed by a physician, and when used for non-medical purposes, to achieve euphoria (fentanyl abuse).

A synthetic opioid analgesic, prescription fentanyl is similar to morphine, but is 100 times more potent, and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Fentanyl is used in treating patients with severe pain, to manage post-surgical pain, and manage chronic pain in those who are resistant to other prescription opiates. Brand names include Actiq, Duragesic and Sublimaze.

Illicit fentanyl (non-prescription fentanyl) is sold through the illegal drug market and may be mixed with other substances, including heroin. Such illicit fentanyl is delivered in transdermal patches, powder, nasal spray, or in counterfeit tablets that look like prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. Fentanyl can be injected, snorted, smoked, used in a patch that some drug users even chew or eat.

Fentanyl is classified as a Schedule II prescription narcotic by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), meaning it has a high abuse potential and may cause addiction. Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have increased in the United States in the past few years, from about 500 in 2013 to over 2,000 in both 2014 and 2015.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes the continued rise of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016 is driven by “sharp” increases in deaths from synthetic opiate drugs other than methadone, in particular, illicitly manufactured fentanyl. Of the 63,632 drug overdose deaths in 2016, according to the CDC analysis, nearly two-thirds involved prescription or illicit opiates. CDC provisional drug overdose deaths counts for 2017 top 72,000, with nearly 30,000 deaths involving synthetic opiates, which includes fentanyl.


The fentanyl transdermal patch, while it has legitimate medical use as a pain reliever for breakthrough pain, especially in those suffering from cancer or end-of-life pain, is often abused for the purposes of getting high. The gel-like substance inside the patch is what fentanyl users target, often ingesting a multiple-day supply of the prescription narcotic (whether obtained legally or not) at once.

Fentanyl Patch Abuse Methods

Various methods of misusing fentanyl patches include:

  • Using multiple patches: This is a case of thinking that more is better. While multiple patches are likely to elicit more euphoria, the amount of fentanyl from multiple patches on the skin is increased and consequently takes longer to wear off. As a result, the user is more likely to experience negative side effects.
  • Fentanyl injection: With this form of fentanyl abuse, the patch’s narcotic gel is removed and boiled, or heated to melt it, or mixed with water— then injecting it into a vein in a manner similar to injecting heroin. However, since fentanyl is so much more potent than heroin, injecting it can lead to overdose and death.
  • Drinking fentanyl “tea”: Some fentanyl users boil the patches or steep them in hot water, drinking the liquid. It takes longer for the drug to become digested in the stomach or small intestine than some of the other ways of misusing fentanyl patches, yet drinking fentanyl liquid in this manner has led to overdose.
  • Chewing the fentanyl in patches: Some fentanyl users forego boiling or injecting or other methods and simply chew the gel in the patch. The narcotic drug is rapidly released all at once and absorbed through the mouth’s mucous membranes. This method can quickly lead to overdose.
  • Smoking fentanyl: Users boil or heat the fentanyl gel and inhale the smoke or vapor that results from this process. The narcotic drug gets into the bloodstream through the lungs’ thin membranes and then quickly travels to the brain.
  • Less likely – snorting fentanyl: Although fentanyl users are more likely to snort illicitly obtained fentanyl powder than snort the gel in fentanyl patches, the latter has been known to happen.

Risks of Fentanyl and Fentanyl Patch Abuse

Addicts intent on achieving a high from prescription time-release fentanyl patches are often unaware of the serious risks they’re undertaking. With fentanyl’s extreme potency, the biggest risk is overdose, coma and potential death, if the user isn’t treated in time or sufficiently with naloxone or Narcan. With fentanyl overdose, breathing slows and the person may fall unconscious, increasing the risk of falls and accidents.

Signs of fentanyl overdose include:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Contracted pupils
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme sleepiness or fatigue
  • Loss of coordination, stumbling, inability to walk
  • Memory or cognition difficulties
  • Coma

Anyone showing signs of fentanyl overdose requires immediate emergency attention. The best way to save this person’s life is to call 911 so he or she can get the medical help they need. Since the individual experiencing fentanyl overdose may be unable to make the call, onlookers, family or friends should do it for them.


There is no safe level of fentanyl abuse. Some fentanyl users, even if they take the narcotic drug exactly as their doctor prescribes, may become addicted to the drug on a physical basis. Detoxing from fentanyl dependence can be done by a physician or medical professional in such cases. However, when fentanyl users take the narcotic as a means of escape, to numb out, feel euphoria or forget about life’s problems, the result will almost inevitably be physical and psychological addiction. As one of the strongest opiates, someone using fentanyl can quickly become addicted. The only way to effectively overcome fentanyl addiction is through drug detox and rehab.

Furthermore, users who inject fentanyl are at high risk of overdose, particularly when fentanyl is mixed or combined with other opiates, such as heroin. The DEA warns that fentanyl is often used as a direct substitute for heroin in opiate-dependent individuals, but it is very dangerous because of its extreme potency and the fact that it results in frequent overdoses that can lead to breathing cessation and death. Drug users may be unaware that a powder or pill contains fentanyl. Fentanyl’s extremely high potency increases the risk of overdose. Illicit fentanyl can also be mixed with cocaine or heroin, which greatly magnifies the combined potency and danger of overdose.

Fentanyl injection also heightens the risk for contracting HIV/AIDS when sharing needles. Bacterial, staph infections and poor nutrition are other physical side effects of fentanyl abuse. Habitual fentanyl users may experience skin infections that occur on a frequent basis, infections of the heart and other heart-related illnesses, poor physical health in general and seizures, whether in withdrawal or not.


In addition to dependence and addiction, long-term fentanyl users are at high risk for a number of physical problems. They may, for example, experience chronic pneumonia, pulmonary disease, liver disease, blood clots and tissue death from collapsed veins.        

For more about fentanyl addiction and recovery, check out these articles:

What Fentanyl Abuse Does to Your Brain 



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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “U.S. drug overdose deaths continue to rise; increase fueled by synthetic opioids.” Retrieved from

Department of Health and Human Services. “Testimony from Wilson M. Compton, M.D. on Research on the Use and Misuse of Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opioids Before Committee on Energy and Commerce.” Retrieved from

Drug Enforcement Administration. “DEA Issues Nationwide Alert on Fentanyl As Threat to Health And Public Safety.” Retrieved from

Drug Enforcement Administration. “Fentanyl.” Retrieved from “Fentanyl Side Effects.” Retrieved from

Expomed. “What is Fentanyl?” Retrieved from

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National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drug Facts.” “Prescription Opioids.” “What are prescription opioids?” Retrieved from

RxList. “Drugs and Medications — fentanyl transdermal.” Retrieved from

Tennessee Department of Health. “Public Health & Safety Advisory on Fentanyl.” Retrieved from

WebMD. “Fentanyl Patch, Transdermal 72 Hours.” Retrieved from

[Link to new article when published on BH site on 10.25] [TM1]