Almost half of opioid-related deaths are attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, overtaking the rate of fatalities caused by prescription overdose.

A new study published May 1 in the journal JAMA calculated the changes in U.S. death rates due to synthetic opioid overdose from 2010 to 2016.

Using the death certificates from the National Vital Statistics System, researchers reported that 46 percent of the 42,249 opioid-related overdose deaths involved fentanyl. Deaths due to prescription drug overdose were at 40 percent.

The authors excluded death certificates that did not specify drug type, which means that the numbers reported are likely underestimated.

"It's certainly concerning. I think that it tracks very closely with the increased availability of illicit synthetic opioids that are coming into the US," said lead author Christopher Jones, who serves as the director of the National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an FDA-approved synthetic opioid used as a painkiller and anesthetic. It increases the levels of dopamine in the brain, the chemical responsible for feelings of euphoria, reward, pleasure, and relaxation.

Lindsay LaSalle, senior staff attorney for the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, said that majority of overdose cases are caused by illegal production and distribution of fentanyl.

She explained that people become unaware of the risks of overdose because illegally manufactured fentanyl is often mixed with heroin. She added that fentanyl is sold at cheaper prices compared to other synthetic opioids.

Physicians prescribe fentanyl for patients with a long-term around-the-clock need for pain relief. It is also administered after surgery and is given in forms of injections, skin patches, and lozenges. Because fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, it can be manufactured less expensively in a lab. However, when taken in high doses, it can result in serious adverse events and even death.

Why Is Fentanyl Deadly?

What makes fentanyl deadly is that its chemical composition is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and 50 times more potent than heroin. Even smaller amounts can be extremely dangerous to the mind and body.

"It only takes a tiny amount of the drug to cause a deadly reaction. Fentanyl can depress breathing and lead to death. The risk of overdose is high with fentanyl," said Dr. Linda Richter, director of policy research and analysis for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

A fentanyl-dependent person may experience withdrawal symptoms such as muscle pain, vomiting, rapid heart rate, tremors, and anxiety among others. It's possible to reverse the effects of a fentanyl overdose using the medication naloxone. Because fentanyl is more potent than naloxone, it usually requires higher doses of the medication for the treatment to become successful.

Victim Of Fentanyl Overdose

On April 21, 2016, singer Prince was found dead at age 57 in a Paisley Park elevator. A toxicology report showed that the musician had high concentrations of fentanyl in his stomach, liver, and blood.

Prior to his death, it was noted that Prince's staff had contacted an addiction treatment center after he was seen leaving a medical clinic. Police also noted that the singer received Narcan (naloxone) days before his passing, but the medication apparently was not effective.

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