Q & A: What is Fentanyl and How Does It Work?

Michelle Rosenker

August 30, 2019

Q: What is fentanyl?

A: Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid medication that is most commonly used to treat moderate to severe pain. This medication is often included in the treatment of those suffering from complications related to cancer and chronic severe pain, as well as for other medical purposes such as epidurals, to treat pain in those tolerant to opioids, and as an anesthetic. It can be prescribed in a trans-dermal patch, administered intravenously, and consumed via tablets, lozenges, nasal spray, and dissolvable strips, known as buccal films.

Q: Is fentanyl dangerous to use for medical purposes?

A: When fentanyl is being taken as prescribed by a medical professional, a patient can benefit from its painkilling properties without the threat of danger. It is understandable to think that fentanyl should not be used in any capacity given the conversation surrounding this specific opioid, however if it is managed appropriately and provided in a safe dose, fentanyl can bring physical comfort to those who are struggling with significant and even unbearable pain.

Q: How potent is fentanyl?

A: Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, which has long been considered one of the most powerful opioids on the planet. It is also 25-50 times more potent than heroin. Because of the sheer potency of this specific opioid, consuming even as little as two milligrams of fentanyl can be deadly. To put that into perspective, two milligrams of illicit fentanyl (powder form) is the equivalent of five to seven granules of salt. This is why abusing fentanyl in any form can be deadly, as it only takes the smallest amount of it to cause a fatal overdose.

Q: How do people get addicted to fentanyl?

A: Like most opioids, it can be frighteningly easy to become addicted to fentanyl. Misusing it in the slightest bit can cause cravings for more, which occur as a result of a number of different factors associated with the overall disease of addiction. Typically, those abusing fentanyl become tolerant to it, meaning that they need to continually increase the amount they are taking in order to achieve the desired effects. The higher that one’s average dose goes, the more risk he or she is at for suffering a fatal overdose. Following tolerance, fentanyl can trigger the onset of dependence. Someone who is dependent on fentanyl will not be able to stop taking it without suffering from physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. This is because the body now relies on fentanyl in order to function. Fentanyl is one opioid that is so potent that a person can become dependent on it within a matter of days.

Q: How does fentanyl work?

A: There are opioid receptors in the brain that naturally regulate emotion and pain, as well as aid in the health and function of the immune, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. When fentanyl is being abused, it binds to these receptors and causes a rush of euphoria and contentment that is much greater than what can be produced through natural means like exercising or eating a delicious meal. This effect is extremely addictive, and once the brain and body get a sense of the high that fentanyl can produce, it begins craving more.

When used responsibly and while under the care of a medical professional, fentanyl will bind to the opioid receptors just as they would if they were being abused, however it will not solicit such a powerful reaction. Safe amounts of prescribed fentanyl will work to reduce physical pain without causing the individual to develop habit-forming behaviors. This, of course, is only possible when a patient is taking safe amounts of fentanyl exactly as prescribed.


Q: What are the signs of a fentanyl overdose?

A: There are three primary symptoms known as the opioid overdose triad that are indicative of an opioid overdose: pinpoint pupils, unconsciousness, and respiratory depression. If someone is overdosing on fentanyl, these symptoms plus the following might occur:

  • Extreme sleepiness/drowsiness
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Bluish color around fingertips and/or mouth
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Limpness in body

Q: If someone is overdosing on fentanyl, will Narcan help?

A: Narcan is a medication that can be administered in the event of an opioid overdose, as it can reverse the effects of opioids like fentanyl. Narcan has saved thousands of lives and continues to be a critical tool in combating the opioid crisis, however it is not always effective on all opioid overdoses. If someone is overdosing on fentanyl, Narcan may not be able to work if large amounts of fentanyl were consumed or if medical attention was not obtained in time. However, Narcan is capable of reversing a fentanyl overdose if there is not too much fentanyl in the person’s system and if it is administered in time.

Q: How is fentanyl addiction treated?

A: Each person who is addicted to fentanyl has his or her own unique treatment needs, however the vast majority of those who are addicted to fentanyl receive a combination of medication and therapy for their treatment. It is common for those addicted to opioids like fentanyl to be prescribed a lesser-strength opioid-based medication to help them transition into sobriety. Medications like Suboxone and methadone can be prescribed when a person is dependent on fentanyl so that withdrawal symptoms and cravings are not as severe. In addition, individuals can also receive therapy simultaneously to address the psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects of their fentanyl addiction so that healing can begin.

Get Help at JourneyPure Melbourne

You do not need to struggle with a substance use disorder, as there are plenty of treatment options available to you. If you are ready to stop using for good, reach out to JourneyPure Melbourne. We can help you start your transformation into a life of recovery.