What Percentage of Fentanyl-Related Deaths Involve Other Drugs?

By Kelly Burch 09/15/17

A new study out of New Hampshire examined more than a year's worth of fentanyl overdose death data to identify if poly drug use was an issue.

doctor use EKG or ECG and test defibrillator system in emergency room

A study out of New Hampshire found that nearly all fentanyl-involved overdose deaths in the state also involved another drug—and that 20% of people who died of an overdose involving fentanyl had 10 or more drugs in their system. 

“While the media tend to emphasize heroin or fentanyl as the ‘primary’ drug problem, it is clear from our research that the users of these drugs tend to use many other drugs,” Dr. Eric Wish, principal investigator of the National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS) and director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research, said in a press release. “To be effective, treatment must focus on each person’s total drug problem, rather than on a single drug.”

NDEWS monitors drug trends around the country. The program is administered through the University of Maryland and funded in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In New Hampshire, overdoses involving fentanyl rose from 145 in 2014 to 362 in 2016—an increase of about 150%, according to the report's highlights. Researchers looked at data from 505 people who died from a fentanyl-related overdose between January 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016. 

In addition to noting that most of the fentanyl deaths involved multiple drugs, researchers were able to identify other information about overdose victims in New Hampshire.

The research found that 95% of overdose victims were white (the state’s population is 96% white), and 78% were men (usually in their 20s and 30s). 

Sixty-three percent of victims were alone when they took their fatal dose of drugs and 58% were alone when they died. Emergency medical services responded to 62% of the deaths, but naloxone was only administered in 12% of cases. Thirteen percent of people who died had previously overdosed. 

According to researchers, drug users said they faced many barriers to using naloxone—including high costs, fear of police, stigmatization, lack of knowledge, and fear of side effects.

The desire to get high also played a role in some drug users' aversion to naloxone. “Pretty much every time I’ve overdosed, and everybody that I know has overdosed, has said, ‘I wasn’t overdosing. I was just really high, and you ruined it.’ But then the paramedic’s there saying, ‘No, no, you were dead,’” one drug user told the researchers. 

Other drug users reported that they intentionally sought out fentanyl. “Some people want a consistent high, other people look for the rush. Me, I kind of like both…so fentanyl seems to be what I seek now,” another said.  

In addition to calling for a prevention approach that focuses on all drugs and not just fentanyl, researchers say that access to naloxone must be increased. Despite users' fears, the researchers say there are no side effects to the overdose reversal drug. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.