Fentanyl? Isn’t that some type of cold medicine? Perhaps it is a new rock group? Or a news dance pioneered on reality TV? No to all three. This medication has killed more than 71,000 people, as of 2021. Fentanyl is used to help relieve incessant pain, and a prescription is required for this analgesic synthetic opioid. It carries the risk of abuse and addiction. If you take a larger dose, you may get breathing problems. That is according to First Databank (Microsoft).
According to The New York Times, Prince hid a long opioid addiction by “mixing various prescription pills in bottles for everyday products like Bayer.” He died on April 21, 2016, another legendary star who died too young. Prince died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl, which oddly enough is an opioid almost 50 times more powerful than heroin.
In March, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville joined three experts in a virtual roundtable to put a spotlight on how fentanyl is impacting Alabama. They delved into many aspects of the crisis. The experts who spoke were Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones, immediate past president of the Alabama Sheriffs Association; Shereda Finch, executive director of the Council of Substance Abuse; and UAB Addiction Specialist Dr. Steven Kertesz.
“Our kids are dying right and left,” Tuberville said. “The facts are a scary picture. … Just two milligrams of fentanyl — roughly the weight of a mosquito — is considered a lethal dose. The Department of Homeland Security announced that it has stopped more than 900 pounds of fentanyl from entering our country. More than 150 Americans are dying every day, and mostly our kids.”
Jones concurred: “One week in January here in Lee County alone, we saw seven instances where individuals had, as it turns out, taken overdose quantities of a drug. Fentanyl was involved in all seven. Two people recovered and five did not.”
One example of where fentanyl is used is in managing chronic pain, such as for cancer. Transdermal patches slowly release fentanyl through the skin into the bloodstream over 48 to 72 hours. This allows for long-lasting pain management. Fentanyl patches are often prescribed with an opioid (such as morphine or oxycodone) to handle breakthrough pain.
In cases of respiratory depression is found the most dangerous adverse effect: decreased sensitivity to carbon dioxide, leading to a reduced rate of breathing, which can cause anoxic brain injury or death. This risk is decreased when the airway is secured with an endotracheal tube.
“It’s just not a ZIP code drug,” Finch explained. “It’s not a socioeconomic drug. Many people who are unsuspecting [are] dying — and they don’t have to die. In Alabama, the age of substance initiation is about 12 to 13 years. That means we have youth who are beginning a pattern.”
Drug Facts states that fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths. Illegal fentanyl is sold in various forms: as a powder, in nasal sprays and eye droppers, dropped on blotter paper like small candies, or made into pills resembling actual prescription opioids.
Illegal fentanyl is being mixed with other drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. This is very dangerous, as people are often unaware fentanyl is added.
Besides singer-songwriter Prince, a tragic number of notables have succumbed to fentanyl-induced overdose. Two more examples are Anthony Durante, known professionally as “Pitbull #2” (2003), and Michael K. Williams, an actor in a series called “The Wire.” He died from an overdose of fentanyl, parafluorofentanyl, heroin and cocaine.
I suspect we will have a long battle with fentanyl. But we must try our hardest to rid our society of dangers like it. Many of these cases are accidental.
Still, as the recent virtual roundtable shows, we must keep plugging. When we see our progress and act as Prince told us, “We will party like it’s 1999.”