As Fentanyl Takes Hold, Treatment Is More Essential Than Ever

By The Fix staff 07/05/17

"They don't even have time to pull the needle out [of their body] and they're on the ground."

A doctor with patient

It seems like the opioid epidemic has been in the news forever, but the crisis is far from over. While it’s true that the devastating effects of opioid addiction have come into every corner of America in the last few years, new research shows that the epidemic is not old news. In fact, drug deaths rates in America are rising faster than ever, underscoring the need for quality drug treatment programs that can help people get into recovery from opioid addiction.

Drug-related deaths rose 19 percent in 2016, the sharpest increase ever, according to a New York Times report. Drugs killed 59,000 Americans last year, more than HIV, guns or car accidents did at their peaks. Many of these people succumbed to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is now found in the heroin, pill and cocaine supplies. Drug seizures involving fentanyl doubled last year, showing just how pervasive the drug is.

With this powerful opioid becoming commonplace, drug abuse has become more deadly than ever, underscoring the need for intensive opioid treatment programs in order to save lives.

“The reason so many are dying is because the dose is relatively uncontrolled with street fentanyl, and small excesses can lead to overdose,” Lewis Nelson, MD, a medical toxicologist and emergency physician at NYU's School of Medicine, told Forbes. “There’s nothing inherently more dangerous about fentanyl than other opioids except the way it is dosed and sold. This should not suggest that the other opioids are not dangerous; they all are.”

However, because use of fentanyl is so uncontrolled, drug users often don’t realize how much of the opioid they are getting, making it significantly easier to lethally overdose.

“Fentanyl is always mixed into something else. So you’re putting a lot of trust in your dealer,” Nelson said. “If you make a batch with just a little more, then you see overdose increases in spots in city.”

According to a CDC report that included interviews with people who had overdosed on fentanyl themselves or witnessed an overdose in the past year, drug users often don’t know whether the heroin they are using contains fentanyl. While some reported seeking fentanyl and some tried to avoid it, most users said that their drug habits did not change when fentanyl was known to be in the heroin supply.

Seventy-five percent of the participants in the survey said that fentanyl overdoses happened very quickly.

"I would say you notice it [a fentanyl overdose] as soon as they are done [injecting the fentanyl]. They don't even have time to pull the needle out [of their body] and they're on the ground," said one interview participant. Even the lifesaving opioid reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) has a hard time acting against fentanyl because the opioid is so powerful. Multiple doses of naloxone are often needed to revive the person who overdosed.

The only way to avoid fentanyl 100 percent is to stop using drugs. However, opioids have a particularly strong physical dependency. In fact, research has shown that 1 in 4 people who try heroin will become addicted, and a recent study found that twenty percent of people who use prescription opioids for ten days will become long-term users.

“We really didn’t expect that,” said lead study author Bradley Martin, a professor of pharmaceutical evaluation and policy at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science.

Because of the strong physical dependency, it is essential to seek professional addiction counseling to guide the dependent person through detox and into recovery.

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