In a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers have identified the “third wave” of the ongoing opioid crisis that’s had a hold on millions of Americans in the past 30 years. The first wave was prescription pain medications, with OxyContin leading the pack. The second was heroin, which replaced pills when they became too expensive. Now the country has moved into the third, and potentially most deadly, wave: fentanyl.

 

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that can shut down breathing in less than a minute. It is chemically similar to morphine, but can be anywhere from 50 to 100 times more potent. Initially created to help patients suffering from severe pain—post-op patients, those suffering from cancer treatment-related pain, and those with extremely painful chronic conditions—it was prescribed as treatment in the form of shots, a patch, or lozenges.

But when it’s illegally or improperly used, fentanyl is often deadly. Its popularity began to climb in 2013 and has only skyrocketed since then. Fatal overdoses increased at a 113 percent rate over the course of 3 years—2013 to 2016. But what’s the cause behind this horrifying increase?

Increased trafficking and use, says the CDC.

It’s considerably easier to produce fentanyl than other popularly abused opioids. Unlike heroin’s well-known poppies, which can spoil due to environmental factors, fentanyl is purely synthetic. Its combination of chemicals are often made in China and packaged in Mexico, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Due to fentanyl’s potency, a smaller amount translates to bigger profits for those involved its creation and distribution.

RELATED: The History of the Opioid Epidemic

Fentanyl's Impact on Overdoses

Drug users are more likely to overdose on fentanyl not only because of its strength, but also because the high fades more quickly than that induced by heroin. This results in more frequent injections, which doubles the risk of overdose, both fatal and not. And in an even more worrisome development, traces of fentanyl have been appearing in supplies of both cocaine and methamphetamines. While some of this mixing may be intentional, either on the part of the dealer or user, in an attempt to achieve a different high, it can also be accidental, resulting in increased dependency on fentanyl and/or a higher risk of overdose.

The breakdown on overdose related deaths is as follows:

  • Men are dying after opioid overdoses at three times the rate of women—much of this is attributed to men’s likelihood to use drugs while alone and they’re often not found until an antidote would be useless
  • Overdose rates are increasing faster in black and Latino Americans than among white Americans
  • The age group with the highest number of deaths is young adults between the ages of 25 and 34
  • West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have the highest observed drug overdose rates in 2017; DC alone nearly matched the entire state of Pennsylvania in its death rate

As it stands now, the opioid crisis is officially in its third wave, with no definitive end in sight.  Given fentanyl’s insidious nature, healthcare professionals struggle with finding a way to help those dealing with addiction and preventing more unnecessary deaths. One small light at the end of the tunnel is the increased availability of naloxone—a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.

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Laura Slade

Written by Laura Slade