When opioids such as fentanyl are used regularly for a prolonged period or in very high doses, the body can develop a physical dependence as it becomes used to the drug’s presence and unable to function without it. There is a high risk of dependence associated with powerful opioids such as fentanyl, and dependence will almost always lead to withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of the drug. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that can be found in prescription form to manage severe pain but is also illegally manufactured and sold on the black market. It is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and has been involved in thousands of deaths in the U.S. alone. In fact, illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids became the main cause of overdose deaths in 2016. Regardless of its origin, fentanyl use can quickly result in dependence and addiction and cause extremely unpleasant withdrawal effects if discontinued abruptly.
About Fentanyl Withdrawal
Potent opioids can cause dependence in just a few weeks, and as such, these drugs are typically only indicated for use for a short period of time. Fentanyl, however, is often used in cases where other painkillers aren’t effective or the person needs long-term pain relief, such as for cancer. Plus, people often use illegal forms recreationally, sometimes unwittingly when the drug is laced with heroin or other illicit drugs. Using a drug as powerful as fentanyl regularly for any length of time is highly likely to result in dependence, addiction, and overdose. While the experience of withdrawal symptoms is challenging, the consequences of continuing fentanyl use and abuse reflect an even greater potential for danger, such as respiratory depression or deadly overdose.
Symptoms of Fentanyl Withdrawal
Fentanyl withdrawal symptoms, although often difficult to manage are usually not life-threatening. Symptoms vary depending on certain factors such as the average frequency and amount of drug use. Fentanyl withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal cramps and pain
- Muscle pain
- Fevers and sweating
- Increased heart rate
- Anxiety and restlessness
- Hallucinations and confusion
- Insomnia or drowsiness
Signs of a Fentanyl Addiction
Fentanyl use affects the central nervous system to a large degree, causing excessive amounts of dopamine to flood the system and chemically change the brain over time. Due to these neurological changes, a person prescribed fentanyl may become dependent on the drug and resort to illegal methods of obtaining when they can longer receive a prescription. Besides dependence and withdrawal, another strong sign of addiction is the development of tolerance. Tolerance is a condition that develops over time due to the body’s propensity to reduce the effects of a given substance in response to repeated exposure. Tolerance compels the user to take more of the drug in an effort to achieve the desired effect, and ever-increasing amounts can easily result in a life-threatening overdose. Other prominent signs may include the following:
- A lack of control over the use of fentanyl – using it in larger amounts or for longer than originally intended.
- A desire to limit use and wanting to cut back or quit fentanyl and finding oneself unable to do so.
- Spending a considerable amount of time acquiring, using, and recovering for fentanyl.
- Having an intense desire to use their drug.
- Lack of responsibility – fentanyl use takes priority over work, school or family obligations.
- Problems with interpersonal relationships that are constantly strained due to drug use and related behaviors.
- Loss of interest and engagement in important social or recreational activities in favor of drug use.
- Continuous use despite dangerous circumstances or adverse consequences, including physical and psychological problems.
Treatment for Fentanyl Withdrawal and Addiction
A medical detox program can significantly reduce and manage symptoms of withdrawal from fentanyl. This type of treatment includes medical monitoring to ensure safety as well as medication to moderate symptoms. Certain FDA-approved medications can relieve symptoms during the fentanyl withdrawal process. These include:
- Methadone – A weaker opioid that can help control drug cravings and reduce withdrawal symptoms.
- Buprenorphine – This is another opioid option that helps mitigate withdrawal symptoms and reduce the length of the withdrawal period.
- Naltrexone – A drug that can assist in relapse prevention.
- Clonidine – A medication that can alleviate some of fentanyl’s withdrawal symptoms.
Critically, addiction treatment shouldn’t end with detox. A detox program helps a person overcome physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms, but it does not treat addictive behaviors or identify the reasons why the addiction occurred in the first place. Ideally, a detox program should transition into a long-term rehab treatment program. Rehab consists of individual therapy, counseling, and other methods that treat addictive behaviors and address factors that led to the addiction. It can also offer strategies and resources for adherence to recovery after the treatment program has been completed.