America is already facing an opiate epidemic. And what makes this epidemic hard to beat is that drug users have choices. If they’re hooked on prescription pain pills, they can go to heroin. And if they’re hooked on heroin, now they can go to something more potent: fentanyl.

Acetyl Fentanyl is an opiate that is mixed into street drugs and marketed as heroin. Acetyl fentanyl can be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine. In fact, just a small amount can be fatal. Users typically use it intravenously as a direct substitute for heroin or painkillers. And, in some cases, users are seeking out fentanyl directly. They want the strongest and best high they can find, users say.

According to one user, quoted from a New York Times article, “I’m going to spend the least amount of money and get the best kind of high I can.” When fentanyl is used as a lace with heroin, it often happens without the user’s knowledge. As John Stogner, Ph.D. of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina pointed out, “A patient may report heroin use and have symptoms consistent with heroin overdose, but an emergency physician may find that the standard [treatment] doesn’t work. Larger or additional doses are necessary when acetyl fentanyl is responsible. It’s never good to lose time between overdose and treatment.”

However, as indicated above, some users are seeking out fentanyl because of the more potent high at a cheaper cost. The trouble here is that when a person overdoses, more of the life-saving medicine Naloxone  is needed to save that person’s life. A stronger form of heroin and requires a stronger dose of Naloxone. Naloxone is a specific opioid receptor antagonist used to reverse an opioid overdose. Essentially, this life saving drug blocks the opiate effects, allowing a person to breathe again long enough to live. However, as mentioned above, Naloxone may not always work, especially if someone has unknowingly taken fentanyl.

Across the country, health officials in various states have been struggling with how to address the opiate addiction, which up until recently included the use of prescription pain pills and heroin. However, now fentanyl is adding another element to the spreading epidemic.  Historically, fentanyl has been used in medical settings to treat extreme pain. However, this drug has been introduced to the United States illicitly over recent decades. And drug users are seeking it out – they want the higher fix at a cheaper price.

Public health officials did not connect opiate overdoses with the presence of fentanyl at first. However, as they examine spikes of emergency room visits and overdoses in recent years, they recognize that many of those overdoses may be due to the use of fentanyl – or least due to the fact that the heroin was spiked with fentanyl.

If you or someone you know is using an opiate of any kind illicitly, you may be at risk for losing your life or the life of a loved one or family member. Fentanyl is a dangerous substitute for heroin. To avoid the loss of life, addiction, and physical harm, contact a mental health provider today.

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