Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine, goes by many street names – Apache, China Girl, China Town, Jackpot, Murder 8. This FDA approved prescription drug is typically used to treat long-term severe pain or pain after surgery, often administered as a shot, a patch, or in lozenges. Illegally, it is often mixed with heroin or cocaine without the buyer’s knowledge, because it is cheaper and more potent.

Fentanyl has now become the most common drug involved in overdose cases in the United States, contributing to just over 59% of opioid-related deaths in 2017 compared to 14.3% in 2010. Dr. Daniel Bober, Medical Director at Lifeskills South Florida says, “This is everyday life in America. There are 130 overdose deaths every day. It is a scene that plays out time and time again.”

How does fentanyl affect the body?

Fentanyl works quickly to connect to the body’s opioid receptors controlling pain and emotion in the brain. The longer the opioids are used, the brain begins to adapt, and sensitivity is diminished, making it difficult to feel pleasure from anything other than the drug, creating a psychological dependency. As with cocaine or heroin, fentanyl produces a strong high, but it is more potent than the others, meaning it takes less to have the same effect – a micro gram of fentanyl is as effective as a milligram of other opioids.

Continued use of fentanyl can cause some common side effects, such as:

  • redness and irritation of your skin where you apply the patch
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • tiredness
  • dizziness
  • trouble sleeping
  • constipation
  • increased sweating
  • feeling cold
  • headache
  • diarrhea
  • loss of appetite

A fentanyl overdose is possible, and even more likely when it is mixed with heroin or cocaine. Serious adverse effects such as slowed breathing leading to hypoxia or lack of oxygen to the brain, causing the body to suffer a coma, permanent brain damage, or death are all possible in an overdose.  Other physical signs of an overdose can include the following:

  • Constricted (pinpoint) pupils
  • Cold clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Convulsions
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Slowed breathing

Naloxone (Narcan) is often used to reverse fentanyl overdoses, however, because of the potency higher doses of the medication are needed for it to be successful. “If the opioid effect lasts longer than the effect of the Narcan, the medication can wear off fairly quickly and you require multiple doses. The reason we are seeing this is because of the addition of fentanyl in drugs like heroin. The fentanyl is causing the brain to forget to breathe and that is what is causing these deaths,” shares Dr. Bober.

What is effective treatment?

Eliminating the drug is the first step for recovery, however, it is difficult. Lifeskills South Florida offers a compassionate, confidential approach to recovery. The Substance Use Disorder clinical pathway is used in treating clients with a complex substance use disorder. Clients learn to develop new habits and effective coping skills through a holistic approach to treatment that integrates Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) principles with the 12-Step philosophy. Combining evidence-based materials with a 12-Step based philosophy provides stronger client outcomes than using a typical 12-Step program alone. Clients are encouraged to engage in community self-help groups that will assist in reinforcing a lifestyle of abstinence, sobriety, and recovery.

Dr. Michelle Quilter, Director of the DBT Programming, states, “We encourage clients to build a life that will be consistent with their recovery so that staying clean becomes the new reward and self-efficacy, the new source of the sensation of pleasure.”

Our professional team of clinicians work with the client to design a customized treatment approach that helps them achieve the self-awareness, self-reliance, and self-monitoring skills needed to live an independent life outside of treatment.

Learn more about how fentanyl is affecting our society in this short interview with Dr. Daniel Bober.


If you or someone you know needs help with a substance use disorder or other mental health condition, contact Lifeskills South Florida today.