Fentanyl has become the most common drug involved in overdose deaths in the United States. The overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids increased from 560 in 2020 to 834 in 2021, with 90% involving fentanyl.

What is fentanyl? How can you tell if someone has overdosed on fentanyl? Why is there such a drastic increase in overdose cases involving fentanyl? 

Majority of overdose cases the person is unaware that what they have taken has fentanyl. This makes it extremely important that anyone participating in drug use is made aware of the dangers of fentanyl and what to look out for. Here’s all you need to know.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful, synthetic opioid used to treat intense pain. Opioids such as morphine or the illegal drug heroin change the way your brain responds to pain by interacting with the receptors to create feelings of relaxation and pleasure. A doctor might prescribe fentanyl in low doses to those who have severe pain due to cancer, nerve damage, or major surgery. 

While it’s safe for a doctor to give you fentanyl in a medical setting, one must only take the amount prescribed, for a little goes a very long way. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, making it extremely dangerous if not handled carefully. 

When prescribed medically, fentanyl is known by names such as Actiq®, Duragesic®, and Sublimaze®. Medical fentanyl comes in many forms such as lozenges, skin patches, or an injection. 

The fentanyl associated with most overdoses is made in a lab and sold illegally. This illegally used fentanyl comes as a powder, dropped onto blotter paper, put in eye droppers or nasal sprays, or made into pills that look like prescription opioids. 

Since it doesn’t take much fentanyl to create a high, some drug dealers have been mixing it into drugs as a cheap alternative. Many drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA are laced with fentanyl. This is extremely dangerous because if someone doesn’t realize what they’re taking contains fentanyl, they might be taking stronger opioids than they are used to and can be more likely to overdose.

What are the Symptoms of Fentanyl?

Fentanyl stays in your system for 24-72 hours.

Some symptoms of fentanyl include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Stomach pain or heartburn
  • Weight loss
  • Trouble peeing
  • Change in vision
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Unusual thinking or strange dreams
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Dry mouth
  • Reddening of the upper body
  • Shaking
  • Back or chest pain
  • Mouth pain, sores, or irritation
  • Swelling

Call your doctor right away if you notice any of the following:

  • Changes in heartbeat
  • Hallucinations
  • Fever or sweating
  • Shivering
  • Muscle stiffness or twitches
  • Loss of coordination
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite, weakness, or dizziness
  • Sexual or menstrual problems

What Are Signs of a Fentanyl Overdose?

The opioid overdose deaths involving fentanyl have increased from 14.3% in 2010 to 59% in 2017, then to 90% in 2021. Call an ambulance immediately if you suspect someone may have taken a fentanyl overdose. The signs to look for include:

  • Blue lips and complexion
  • Gurgling or slow breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Seizure
  • Confusion or strange behavior
  • Passing out
  • Muscle rigidity

What’s Muscle Rigidity?

Fentanyl muscle rigidity is characterized by tensing up of the trunk, neck, and jaw muscles after the injection. In many cases, the rigidity causes laryngeal spasms, decreased chest compliance, and the inability to open the mouth and breathe. Muscle rigidity requires immediate intervention in a hospital setting to assist the person in breathing.

At a supervised consumption facility in Vancouver, B.C., a 52-year-old man injected his usual mixture of opioids and shortly after was found completely stiff, eyes wide open, unresponsive, and not spontaneously breathing. After artificial respirations helped the patient to become responsive and the muscle rigidity subsided, the patient reported that he had injected a mixture of heroin and meth from a new supplier. The sample was found to contain fentanyl, meaning the patient had experienced fentanyl-induced muscle rigidity.

Thankfully this example was at a supervised injection site with readily available medical attention, but most of the time this is not the case. It is important that all people who inject drugs are aware of the risk of muscle rigidity and encouraged to practice safe use to reduce the chance of muscle rigidity developing.

How Is Fentanyl Overdose Treated?

Naloxone is a medicine that can treat opioid overdose right away. It binds to opioid receptors and blocks the effects of opioid drugs. Since fentanyl is stronger than other opioid drugs, more doses may be required to treat the effects.

Can Fentanyl Use Lead to Addiction?

Much like heroin, morphine, or other opioid drugs, fentanyl is extremely addictive. After taking opioids, the brain develops a tolerance and adapts to the drug, causing withdrawal symptoms when use stops. Due to fentanyl’s potency, the withdrawal symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable, some of which include:

  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Cold flashes
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Intense cravings

What Should I Do If Addicted to Fentanyl?

While fentanyl is extremely dangerous and addictive, it is possible to treat and find recovery. Like other opioid addictions, medication and behavioral therapies effectively treat those addicted to fentanyl.
If you or a loved one is addicted to fentanyl or other drugs and you think rehab may be the answer, Healthy Life Recovery wants to help! Don’t wait until it’s too late, contact us today to learn more about our drug and alcohol outpatient programs located in San Diego, California.


Buxton, Jane A, et al. “A 52-Year-Old Man with Fentanyl-Induced Muscle Rigidity.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal De L’Association Medicale Canadienne, Joule Inc., 30 Apr. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5929893/. 

Benisek, Alexandra. “What Is Fentanyl?” WebMD, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/fentanyl-what-to-know. “Fentanyl Drugfacts.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 30 June 2021, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl.

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