The opioid epidemic has taken a serious toll on the lives of countless Americans, and synthetic opioids are a major contributor to this crisis. But what are synthetic opioids, and why do they pose such a danger to so many people across the nation?
What are Synthetic Opioids?
Naturally occurring opioids come from the opium poppy plant and include prescription medications like morphine and Vicodin or illicit drugs like heroin. But, as the name implies, synthetic opioids are lab-made drugs that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says mimic the effects of naturally occurring opioids.
Synthetic opioids are prescription medications that are also manufactured and used illegally. They are typically used to treat severe or chronic pain, particularly in people who have become tolerant to naturally occurring opioids. However, other illegal drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, or MDMA, are frequently mixed or cut with synthetic opioids — often without the knowledge of the people using them.
The major difference between naturally occurring and synthetic opioids is that synthetic opioids are much more potent. The CDC notes that synthetic opioids are 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, illustrating a stark divide in how the two types of opioids may affect the people using them.
The Most Common Types of Synthetic Opioids
Synthetic opioids can come in a variety of forms depending on how a person obtains them. A doctor can prescribe them as tablets, lozenges, a nasal spray, transdermal patch, or give it as an injection. Illicit forms come as a powder, nasal spray, drops on blotter paper, liquid in eye droppers, or pills that look like prescription opioids.
According to the CDC, a synthetic opioid list typically includes:
Fentanyl is the most well-known synthetic opioid. Prescription versions of the drug include Actiq®, Duragesic®, and Sublimaze®, while street names for illegal forms of fentanyl include China White, Dance Fever, and Jackpot.
The Effects of Synthetic Opioids
All opioids — whether naturally occurring or synthetic — affect the opioid receptors in the brain, changing the way the body reacts to pain and causing feelings of euphoria. The more a person takes them, the higher their risk of needing more to experience the effects of the drug.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) likens the effects of synthetic opioids to those of other opioids, such as heroin or morphine, except that they are much more powerful. These can include:
- Happiness or elation
- Drowsiness or unconsciousness
- Nausea or constipation
- Trouble breathing
NIDA also says that the longer people misuse synthetic opioids, the higher their risk for experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop taking them. Depending on how much a person has been using and for how long, they might suffer from withdrawal symptoms as soon as a few hours after they last took a synthetic opioid. They may struggle with:
- Severe opioid cravings
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle and bone pain
- Abdominal cramping
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Sweating and goosebumps
- Rapid heartbeat
This can be extremely distressing and uncomfortable, making it difficult for people to end their use of synthetic opioids without professional help.
The Potential Dangers of Synthetic Opioids
Because synthetic opioids are much more potent than naturally occurring opioids, the risk of overdose is that much higher. And when prescription medications become more difficult to obtain, many people turn to illicit drugs, which are cheaper and can be easier to access. However, many illicit drugs are often mixed or cut with unknown amounts of synthetic opioids, making for a dangerous combination of substances.
The Journal of the American Medical Association found that in 2016:
- 19,413 of the 42,249 opioid-related overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids
- 7% of synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths involved another substance, most commonly including another opioid (47.9%), heroin (29.8%), cocaine (21.6%), and prescription opioids (20.9%)
- Synthetic opioids surpassed prescription opioids as the most common substance involved in overdose deaths in America
These powerful, lab-made drugs have driven overdose deaths in the United States, yet many people who are using illicit drugs don’t even know they’ve taken them.
It’s crucial to tell your doctor any concerns you might have about taking synthetic opioids and to follow their instructions on how to take the medication. This will ensure that you take the least amount of medication necessary for the shortest amount of time, helping you avoid misusing synthetic opioids. Taking more than your doctor prescribes for longer than they recommend can lead to the development of an opioid use disorder.
Finding Help for Synthetic Opioid Addiction
If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction to synthetic opioids, finding help in your area is possible. Your doctor can refer you to a facility that specializes in treating synthetic opioid addiction. If you do not currently have a primary care doctor, many addiction treatment facilities accept self-referrals and walk-ins and can help you begin the recovery process.
You can also search the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) online database of addiction treatment facilities or call the national helpline at (800) 662-4357 to find treatment near you.