Reducing the Risks of Fentanyl in the U.S.

Reducing the Risks of Fentanyl in the U.S.


Each year, families and communities all over America are impacted by the overdose crisis.

In 2020, opioid-related overdoses increased by 37.6%, meaning we lost 188 people each day and that number has been increasing, leaving a lifetime of grief for every child, parent or partner left behind.

Overdoses are often preventable or reversible so understanding and addressing risks can save lives.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that has entered into the illegal drug market. It is up to 100x more potent than heroin and is deemed to be the main driver of opioid overdoses. Due to its relatively low price and high availability, it has been found, not only in heroin, but also in other substances including:

● non-prescribed opioids,

● non-prescribed benzodiazepines,

● crack cocaine,

● methamphetamine and

● synthetic cannabinoids.


The presence of fentanyl in other drugs can happen intentionally or unintentionally. This places anyone who uses drugs at risk of exposure, overdose and even death.

A helpful rule to consider: if a clinician or pharmacist is not directly providing a prescription medication, the risk of illicitly manufactured fentanyl is very high.

Moreover, the risk is not distributed evenly. Overdose deaths are rising at a faster pace among Non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic people than among Non-Hispanic Whites for synthetic opioids other than methadone.

Understanding the risks involved with illicitly manufactured fentanyl and ensuring everyone who uses illegal drugs is aware of the dangers can help prevent overdoses.

It is important that substance use and overdose risk be discussed in a non-judgmental way that allows openness and focuses on safety. Opportunities to engage can occur:

● during discussions about recreational substance use

● during discussions about how to manage pain, or

● during emergency visits.


The conversation can be approached in a way that is informative and even hypothetical. “There are a lot of overdoses in our area, due to fentanyl exposure. If you know anyone who uses substances recreationally, letting them know that they are at-risk could help save their life.”

An overdose can happen anywhere. Carrying naloxone can be essential to help save a life. Remember, we are all first responders.

If someone’s skin is gray, blue or ashy and they do not respond to verbal cues, rub their chest or

press their fingertip firmly and look for a response. If an overdose is suspected:

● Call 911 immediately, or direct someone nearby to call 911 as you support the person

● Announce that you are going to give Naloxone. Good Samaritan Laws protect you when you are trying to help someone in need.

● Be mindful of the area and avoid any needles that may be around.

● Remember, naloxone is extremely safe, even if given to a person not having an overdose


A few simple tips can help everyone reduce the risk of overdose.

● First, never use alone. A leading reason why people die of an overdose is because there is no one there to help them.

● Second, test your drugs: Fentanyl test strips may be available at syringe exchange programs or from other harm reduction services, and can help you to know if you are being exposed to more dangerous levels of opioids.

● Third, carry Naloxone!


There are many treatment options for individuals who are concerned about their own substance use. Connecting to a peer recovery specialist or healthcare provider can help determine the best options available.

Medications to treat opioid use disorder save lives. Being in treatment with Buprenorphine, also known as Suboxone, and Methadone has been shown to reduce overdose deaths by up to 59% as compared to abstinence-based models.

By increasing awareness of the dangers of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and being informed on how to respond to an overdose and how to discuss treatment options, we can work to decrease overdose deaths.