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Quick Dose: What Is Fentanyl?

The number of deaths and overdoses from opioids continues to increase at an alarming rate. The emergence of fentanyl is particularly worrisome. In Cook County alone, there was a 2,700 percent increase in fatal fentanyl-related overdoses from 2014 to 2016.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl has been around since the 1960s to provide relief for patients with advanced stages of cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

The version of fentanyl that is making headlines and responsible for the increase in overdose deaths is a synthetic, illegal version in the form of a fine grain powder. It first entered the drug supply in large quantities in 2014. To increase the dealers’ profit and enhance the users’ high, the street version of fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs, with or without the drug user’s knowledge.

This illegal fentanyl is extremely potent — and deadly. In fact, just a quarter of a milligram can cause death. That’s the equivalent of breaking a 500mg adult pain reliever tablet into 2,000 pieces. If that wasn’t convincing enough, carfentanil, a powerful derivative of fentanyl, is used by veterinarians to tranquilize elephants.

Learn more about preventing and identifying fentanyl abuse and the opioid epidemic.

If you or someone you know has an addiction, help is available. If you believe someone has overdosed, call 911 immediately.

Jeffrey T. Johnson, DO, Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group, Addiction Medicine