Fentanyl Side Effects

It’s all over the news: fentanyl’s influence on the opioid epidemic, more stats on overdose deaths, and more talk about how to prevent this dangerous substance from making it into the hands of people all over the country. It’s understandable to be concerned. Just two milligrams of fentanyl is enough to kill. It’s scary, and it might impact more people than you think.

48 opioid prescriptions were given out for every 100 people in West Virginia in 2022, so many people in our state may experience fentanyl side effects. Even though most people know of fentanyl in the context of the opioid epidemic, it can also be prescribed by a doctor. Whether you’re familiar with fentanyl due to a prescription or illicit use, let’s discuss some side effects to be aware of.

More Than a Street Drug: What Fentanyl is Prescribed For

Fentanyl, unlike many other substances on the street, has a medicinal purpose. It is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and treats severe pain, such as late-stage cancer pain or extreme pain after surgery. 

Unfortunately, prescribed fentanyl can make it onto the streets where it’s used outside of what it was intended for. Most commonly, it’s not pharmaceutical fentanyl that is involved in illicit fentanyl use, and is illegally made fentanyl instead.

A Comprehensive List of the Side Effects of Fentanyl

No matter how fentanyl is made or acquired, the side effects are the same. If you’ve been prescribed fentanyl by a doctor and experience these side effects, stay in touch with them and let them know. They will better be able to direct you on what to do based on your personal health history.

Common Side Effects: When It’s Safe to Wait Them Out

The following are common side effects, and often don’t require medical attention. They may go away as your body adjusts to prescribed fentanyl, but if they continue and are irritating, it’s never a bad idea to seek medical attention. The most common side effects of fentanyl are:

  • Constipation
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Dry mouth
  • Vertigo
  • Unusual dreams

Rare Side Effects: When to Contact a Doctor

These side effects are even more rare, and if you experience them, seeking medical attention is a good idea:

  • Anxiety
  • Swelling of the face, throat, tongue, arms, hands, lower legs and/or feet
  • Burning, itching, or tingling feelings
  • Disorientation
  • Painful or difficult urination
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain
  • Hallucinations
  • Tremor

Short-Term Effects

When prescribed, fentanyl is usually taken through an injection in the muscle, a patch on the skin, or a lozenge, similar to a cough drop. The injection causes pain relief almost immediately, and is usually only given at a hospital. The lozenge takes up to 30 minutes to kick in, while a patch takes a day or two.

Illicit fentanyl comes in a variety of forms, but is most often smoked, snorted, or injected. These forms also cause a near-immediate “high.”

Anyone taking fentanyl will likely feel these effects in the short term:

  • Pain relief
  • Euphoria
  • Relaxation
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Small pupils
  • Slowed breathing

Long-Term Effects

Long-term fentanyl use isn’t recommended, because it can have consequences. Taking fentanyl long-term will eventually cause a tolerance to the medication’s effects, and require higher doses to receive the desired effect. Long-term use can cause a higher sensitivity to pain, known as hyperalgesia. The biggest danger of long-term fentanyl use in a clinical setting is developing a fentanyl use disorder.

Someone using fentanyl illicitly long-term also runs a higher risk of overdosing on fentanyl.

understanding fentanyl side effects

How Fentanyl Affects the Body: System-Wide Dysfunction

Fentanyl use, especially long-term, wears down all areas of the body. Fentanyl use can cause constipation, and that constipation can cause bowel obstruction eventually. It can weaken bones, making fractures more likely, especially in the elderly. Fentanyl can cause breathing and heart problems, and suppress the immune system. The reproductive system is also impacted, as fentanyl can cause fertility issues and hormonal changes. 

How Fentanyl Affects the Brain: From Dopamine to Breathing

All opioids, including fentanyl, attach themselves to the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors are located in areas of the brain responsible for emotions and pain. This attachment increases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with good mood and pleasure. Your body produces some opioids naturally, and helps your body give you a feeling of reward and regulate your pain.

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl are far stronger than the body’s natural opioids, and overwhelm the body with dopamine. This causes the “high” that makes fentanyl appealing, but it also causes changes to the brain with prolonged use. The brain begins to rely on fentanyl to produce dopamine and trigger that reward system, making natural feelings of reward unfulfilling. The body also begins to produce less dopamine naturally, which creates a feeling of depression and emptiness without fentanyl use. This depression is usually even worse than any depression that might’ve driven someone to illicitly use fentanyl in the first place.

These changes make discontinuing the use of fentanyl incredibly difficult, and this contributes to the development of fentanyl use disorders.

Cognitive changes are also possible with long-term fentanyl use, such as memory problems, trouble focusing, and overall cognitive function.

Fentanyl also impacts parts of the brain used to control breathing. Research has shown that fentanyl can impair breathing in someone before they even realize it: four minutes before they become less alert. This can happen immediately upon administering fentanyl, and isn’t influenced by long-term use.

Fentanyl Hallucinations

While uncommon, hallucinations due to fentanyl are possible. This phenomenon hasn’t been studied much, but thus far, hallucinations due to opioids are mostly seen in older people with existing health complications. Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions are also more at risk of fentanyl hallucinations. Fentanyl hallucinations are serious, and if you think you’re experiencing them, contact your doctor who prescribed the medication immediately.

The Danger of Potential Overdose: Whether It’s the 50th or The 1st Time

Usually, doses of prescription fentanyl are low enough that it’s difficult to overdose on it. The problem comes when someone uses fentanyl illicitly.

Fentanyl sold on the street is often mixed with other substances like heroin, often without people’s knowledge. Because of fentanyl’s potency, it makes heroin feel stronger, and makes the supply of it last longer for a lower price. Fentanyl is so strong that it’s possible to overdose the very first time you use it. 

Overdose is even more likely if you use fentanyl long-term. As you take more fentanyl, your body builds up a tolerance, requiring more fentanyl to achieve the desired effect. While it feels like your body has “adjusted” to fentanyl, that isn’t the case. Your body can’t handle more fentanyl than it ever could. As you raise the dose, you run a higher and higher risk of overdosing.

If you suspect you or someone else has overdosed on fentanyl, it’s vital to get medical help immediately. West Virginia’s Good Samaritan Law will ensure no one acting to save someone’s life in the event of an overdose will get into legal trouble. Fentanyl overdose is often deadly.

If you or anyone you know using fentanyl experiences the following symptoms, seek medical attention right away:

  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Falling in and out of consciousness
  • Labored or very slow breathing
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Limp body
  • Clammy and cold skin
  • Blue or grayish nails, lips, and skin

Naloxone is a medication that anyone can have on hand and administer without medical training. It most commonly comes in a nasal spray form. If used quickly enough, naloxone can save the life of someone overdosing. It’s vital to remember that naloxone alone isn’t enough to reverse an overdose. Its purpose is to preserve someone’s life long enough for medical personnel to arrive and give the person life-saving treatment. If you give someone naloxone, make sure to stay with them until medical help arrives.

How to Cope With the Side Effects of Fentanyl: Don’t Do It Alone

While the over-the-counter pain reliever ibuprofen is a popular choice for flu-like symptoms and hasn’t been shown to interact with fentanyl, it’s still a good idea to act cautiously. It may be tempting to face fentanyl side effects on your own, thinking they’ll just go away if you stick it out, but if they’re interfering with your life or causing you a lot of pain, it’s time to contact your doctor. They’ll advise you based on your personal health and circumstances, which is more than any article on the internet can do.

common adverse effects of fentanyl use

Treatment for Fentanyl Addiction in West Virginia

If you use fentanyl illicitly and are experiencing the negative impact of it, you may be even more inclined to try to deal with it on your own. That can be an isolating and lonely experience, and living with a fentanyl use disorder doesn’t have to be that way. The best thing you can do for yourself is seek fentanyl addiction treatment.

Getting treatment can be scary at first, and you may feel ashamed of your condition. You may be hesitant to leave your life of fentanyl use behind, or may wonder if you can really break free from it. You can. In treatment, you’ll meet many people with similar experiences to you, and you’ll be able to empower each other to live a fentanyl-free life.

Hope for Tomorrow is an addiction treatment center located in West Virginia. Whether you feel like you’ve lost your entire life to your fentanyl use disorder or want to get treatment before you do, we can help. If you’re a veteran, pregnant woman, or have an additional medical condition, you’re also welcome at Hope for Tomorrow. We offer exceptional care to anyone who needs it. For more on what we do, call us at 877-679-8162. Treatment today for a brighter tomorrow.