Fentanyl – A drug improving or ruining lives?

Writer: Similoluwa Ayeni-Yegbe 
Editor: Lucy Masdin
Artist: Vera Liu

Fentanyl is a powerful prescribed drug used for patients in severe pain, but its illegal use has devastated communities.  

Fentanyl belongs to a group of drugs called opioids. These are drugs having similar effects to morphine, which is found in the opium poppy. Opioids are analgesics, meaning they can relieve pain.  

Opioid receptors are activated when bound by opioids. These receptors are found in various locations of the body, such as in the brain and spinal cord. Once these opioid receptors are bound, pain signals from the spinal cord to the brain are blocked, leading to pain relief.  

As it’s an analgesic, fentanyl is used by cancer patients to reduce severe pain. Since fentanyl has rapid onset, it’s particularly advantageous in producing quick relief. As a result, cancer patients can greatly benefit from fentanyl when undergoing breakthrough pain (sudden and potentially severe pain caused by normal activities such as walking and coughing). Fentanyl is also widely used in anaesthesia.  

As with all drugs, however, there are also negative impacts of taking fentanyl. Besides side effects such as drowsiness, nausea and confusion, fentanyl can cause further issues as it’s an addictive drug. Users may enjoy taking fentanyl due to the feelings of happiness and pleasure that it produces, potentially becoming dependent on it. This means that if a patient suddenly stops taking it, they may experience withdrawal symptoms, so doctors often recommend gradually reducing the dose of fentanyl before stopping. 

Due to its potent effects, fentanyl must be prescribed, but it can be misused if distributed to others or if the prescribed dose is not followed. The distribution of prescribed fentanyl to other people is a serious issue since the exact dose that can cause harm to the body differs from person to person. A dose that brings pain-relief to the patient could kill another person.  

Recently, however, fentanyl has caused problems due to its illegal use as a street drug. Unlike some other opioids, fentanyl is easily synthesised. It is particularly dangerous as a street drug since it’s often mixed with other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. This has caused particular problems in the United States, where the opioid crisis has worsened in recent years. Tens of thousands of deaths each year in the U.S are due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. According to the US ‘Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’, fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin (a class A drug in the UK). That’s right – a drug bringing relief to cancer patients has effects potentially worse than heroin.   

What can be done to reduce the issue of fentanyl abuse? Some states in America have implemented urine tests for patients using opioids. Increased use of opioid testing can be conducted to check if patients are taking more fentanyl than prescribed, and therefore if they are at risk of addiction. Besides illegal drugs, it’s also important to raise greater awareness about the risks of abusing prescription opioids. Opioid prescriptions could be stricter, ensuring doctors are only giving them to patients when this is the best treatment option.   

So, fentanyl – friend or foe? Offering hope or despair? Improving or ruining lives?

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