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Why fentanyl is deadly

SOMOS | 10/20/23
In the USA, more than 150 people die every day just from fentanyl overdoses. In 2021 and 2022, more than 100,000 people per year died from drug overdoses.

Dr. Fernando Taveras is a psychiatrist. He lives and works in New York, in Washington Heights. He’s a member of the SOMOS network of doctors, which serves people of limited resources. He has more than 40 years of experience in the care of people with addictions. One of them is fentanyl. 

He explains what this substance is and why it causes so many deaths. 

Abuse leads to addiction

“Fentanyl is an opium-based pain reliever, but it can be produced synthetically. Without a doubt, used correctly it has always been effective in treating pain — when used exclusively for treating pain,” says the psychiatrist. 

For example, fentanyl can be helpful for a few days “if a person has a serious burn, and cannot bear the pain. For a few days, it is correct to use morphine or any other drug. Also, if they have a very serious fracture, or after an operation,” he adds.

“Used well, opioids (fentanyl, morphine…) are fine, but unfortunately, they end up in the wrong hands.

“These substances calm the pain. But what happens? You use them once, nothing happens. But if you continue to use them, you will nullify the effect that you normally have. Then the person becomes addicted because they feel pain without having [a] condition, and feel the need to use the drug,” he explains.

“Fentanyl, just like oxycodone,” he adds, “as well as morphine, all are substances that act in this manner.”

3 Effects of fentanyl

“This drug,” Dr. Taveras explains, “will produce a euphoric effect. It makes you feel good. It also relieves the pain. Those are … two good effects.”

But then, there is a third effect, which “attacks the respiratory center” in the brain. “It makes you stop breathing.”

“The person does not realize that he has carbon dioxide poisoning, and dies. It produces respiratory arrest,” which “leads to cerebral arrest and cardiac arrest. Fentanyl is very, very dangerous.” 

When a painkiller becomes a killer

In the United States, more than 100,000 people died from fentanyl overdoses per year in both 2021 and 2022. “We’re very, very concerned,” says Dr. Taveras. “We need people to have knowledge, mainly young people.” 

There is only one chance to survive a fentanyl overdose: “There’s a medicine,” he notes, “called Narcan. Thank God it doesn’t do any harm. It’s an opioid blocker and it saves lives.”