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One Pill Can Kill: What is Fentanyl?

One Pill Can Kill
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Fentanyl is a deadly synthetic opioid that drives addiction and can be fatal even in very small amounts. Along with other synthetic opioids, it has become one of the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths today. In 2017, 59% of opioid-related overdose deaths involved fentanyl. This represents a significant increase from just 14.3% in 2010. In its prescription form, fentanyl is known by such names as Actiq®, Duragesic®, and Sublimaze®.

Following alarming spikes in the number of overdoses caused by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the DEA launched its One Pill Can Kill campaign in Fall of 2022 to raise awareness of the potency and prevalence of counterfeit pills. Though fentanyl is a prescription narcotic used to treat patients with severe pain, its high potency means it takes a very small amount to produce a high. Those engaged in producing, distributing, and selling illicit drugs benefit from adding cheaply produced synthetic opioids to their products, making them more potent, but oftentimes, more deadly.

Keep reading to learn more about the dangers of fentanyl and how parents and caregivers can protect children from emerging targeting strategies.

If you or a loved one needs treatment for substance use disorder, please call our 24-hour Treatment and Referral HelpLine at 833.976.HELP (4357) or email [email protected]

Is Fentanyl Lethal?

Fentanyl poses a high risk for dependence, and it can cause respiratory distress and death. Fentanyl is like morphine, but 50 to 100 times more potent — and it can be 50 times more potent than heroin. Individuals typically have no way to tell whether drugs they purchase from illicit sources in the real world or online contain fentanyl. Owing to its high potency, many folks accidentally or unknowingly ingest fatal doses beyond their tolerance level. The image below illustrates a potentially lethal amount of fentanyl — as much as what fits on the tip of a sharpened pencil.

Fentanyl Lethal Dose
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A fentanyl overdose occurs when the drug produces adverse effects and life-threatening symptoms, such as when an individual’s breathing slows or stops. When this occurs, it decreases the amount of oxygen the brain receives, potentially causing a condition called hypoxia that may lead to a comatose state, irreversible brain damage, and/or death.

Naloxone can treat a fentanyl overdose if immediately administered. This medication binds with opioid receptors in the brain, blocking the effects of opioids. It is is available as an injectable (needle) solution and nasal sprays (NARCAN® and KLOXXADO®). In some states, pharmacists can dispense nasal spray versions of naloxone to community members, who can intervene and save someone’s life if they are overdosing. It’s important to note that fentanyl is, however, stronger than other opioids, and multiple doses of naloxone may be required to reverse a fentanyl overdose. If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately, even if you can or have administered naloxone yourself.

How Do I Know if Something Has Fentanyl in it? 

Fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA, and others. Drug traffickers are also able to press fentanyl into pills that look like prescription pills. For healthcare providers, this can make it difficult to know which drug is causing adverse effects for a person in crisis or an individual experiencing an overdose. For individuals taking substances, this makes it virtually impossible to tell whether illicit substances or pills that appear to be authentic prescription pills contain fentanyl. Community members taking prescription pills to manage medical conditions are urged to only take medications prescribed by a medical professional and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist. 

Fentanyl & Counterfeit Pills

When fentanyl is prescribed by a doctor, it is typically given as a shot, a skin patch, or as lozenges that are sucked on like cough drops. Synthetic fentanyl most associated with overdoses is often sold illegally as a powder and can be put in eye droppers and nasal sprays, dropped onto blotter paper, or pressed into counterfeit pills that resemble common prescription opioids. The image below shows two 30mg OxyContin® pills. The one on the left is authentic, while the pill on the right is a counterfeit that could potentially contain a lethal dose of fentanyl.

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What Is Rainbow Fentanyl?

In August 2022, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) released a statement warning the public of an alarming new trend of colorful fentanyl showing up in pill and powder form across the United States.

Dubbed “rainbow fentanyl” in the media, the DEA and law enforcement partners believe this is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction in kids and young adults by making the deadly substance look like candy. Find more information and read the full release here.

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Teens and Fentanyl: What Parents & Caregivers Should Know

The advent of smart phones and social media has made it easy for drug traffickers to find potential clients and conduct sales. It’s imperative that parents and caregivers are educated on the dangers of the drug landscape today, and that children and young adults understand the risks of taking substances acquired from drug traffickers.

The DEA recommends the following tips for parents and caregivers:

  • Encourage open and honest communication
  • Explain what fentanyl is and why it is so dangerous
  • Stress not to take any pills that were not prescribed to you from a doctor
  • No pill purchased on social media is safe
  • Make sure they know fentanyl has been found in most illegal drugs
  • Create an “exit plan” to help your child know what to do if they’re pressured to take a pill or use drugs

How Drug Traffickers Use Emojis

Another disturbing tactic used by drug traffickers is the use of emojis to convey their messaging. This can make it difficult for parent and caregivers to recognize when their children are having conversations about drug use. The following image showcases how simple emojis are sometimes used as code:

Find a more comprehensive list of emoji drug codes here.

Additional resources for parents and caregivers, as recommended by the DEA:

If you or a loved needs help with addiction treatment, please contact our 24-hour Treatment and Referral HelpLine at 833.976.HELP (4357) or email [email protected] today.

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