Fentanyl has been plaguing our society for quite some time now. In Episode 4 of Season 3, addiction medicine specialist Dr. Lauren Graber sheds some light on the substance.  She starts with an alarming number:

  • In 2022, fentanyl claimed the lives of more than 73,000 people. This is more than a year’s worth of car accidents in the United States – and traumatic in so many different ways.

“Fentanyl is a high potency synthetic opioid – it is 50 times stronger than heroin,” she explains. “In general, opioids are medications that hit that opioid pain receptor and help with pain. The opioids that come naturally are from the poppy plant, like morphine and heroin. Fentanyl is synthetic – meaning it is made by humans from other different substances.”

These substances come from a number of places around the globe and then arrive in the U.S. in various ways. Because fentanyl is such a strong medication, a little bit can have a huge impact.

“And that makes it a lot easier to get into the country, because whether it’s coming by mail, land or water, it can come in small batches and it’s harder to detect. It’s also much cheaper and stronger than other opioids,” said Dr. Graber, who also talked about the many legitimate, effective uses to manage pain. It’s used often in surgery for anesthesia. It’s fast-acting and can be carefully monitored and safely administered to patients who need relief from pain that cannot be achieved from other medications – but it’s rarely sent home with patients.

Outside of a medical setting is where it becomes a concern, she explains. “I think it’s used in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons. Our patients come from every background, every neighborhood of the city and really have a lot of reasons about what things started them off in using fentanyl. I think there’s a very close association with pain, and a very close association with going through hard times, whatever that is for a person. It’s a really personal reason why people start using.”

Dr. Graber talked about the many ways people use fentanyl, its addictive properties, and that sometimes people may not even realize what they’re using contains fentanyl – a trend she’s become more aware of in the past year or two.

“People think they’re getting one thing and then actually it’s mixed with something else. I think the most common contaminants are stimulants like cocaine, crack, and meth. These are sometimes mixed with fentanyl – especially the powder forms. Because fentanyl is so powerful, it’s really easy to cut in or mix it in with some of those other substances in a way that could be surprising – and devastating.”

We talked about the larger scope of opioid addiction, its stigma, and its societal impact, as well as withdrawal symptoms (remember the worst flu you’ve ever had?) and the hope for recovery. Listen to this important conversation about fentanyl on Episode 4 of Season 3 of the Healthy Matters Podcast.