Fentanyl: Fake Heroin with Real Consequences

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If you try researching the term fentanyl, you will come across many news articles that read:

“Fentanyl – The killer painkiller.”

“Fentanyl is the deadliest drug in the US.”

“DEA warns of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl.”

Created in 1960 as an injectable anesthetic, fentanyl has surpassed heroin and prescription pills to become the primary culprit of the opioid crisis. It’s now the top cause of US overdose deaths.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 50 times more potent than heroin, 100 times more powerful than morphine, 1,000 times stronger than codeine, and 36,000 times more powerful than paracetamol.1 In fact, the DEA says that it takes about 2 milligrams of fentanyl to kill you.

The National Center for Health Statistics stated that 29% of all drug overdose deaths in 2016 mentioned fentanyl, a 1045% increase from 2012.2 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31,000 people in the US died due to taking fentanyl or a similar substance in 2018.

Synthetic Heroin

As fentanyl is cheaper to make than heroin and more potent, drug traffickers often mix it with heroin, with or without the user’s knowledge.

In 2016, 11% of heroin samples analyzed by the DEA contained fentanyl or related substances. That percent is believed to have increased over the years.

How Long Does Fentanyl Stay in Your System?

Several factors are at play when it comes to how long fentanyl stays in your system. It can depend on your:3

  • Weight
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Body fat
  • Digestive health
  • Drug history
  • Diet

Your weight, age, and body fat affect how your body processes and removes fentanyl. The length of time also depends on how much was taken and whether the dose was taken regularly.

What’s the Half-Life of Fentanyl?

The amount of time it takes your body to metabolize and remove half of the drug is known as elimination half-life. The half-life of fentanyl is anywhere between 5 to 15 hours. Meaning, it will take 5 to 15 hours for your body to get rid of half of the drug. It will take 5 to 15 hours more to eliminate half of what is left.

Does Fentanyl Show up on a Drug Test?

Standard opioid drug tests don’t identify fentanyl. As a result, medical companies have developed a specific test that can detect this synthetic opioid.

Fentanyl can be identified through specific urine, hair, and blood tests. The synthetic opioid can be detected through a urine test one and three days after the last time of usage. Fentanyl is detectable through a blood test between 5 and 48 hours after the last use.  Although less commonly used, hair tests can identify fentanyl for up to 3 months after the last use.

Heroin vs. Fentanyl

Even a tiny drop of synthetic fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin. Ingesting a few grains, which is a quarter of a milligram, can be deadly.

Heroin is made from poppy plants that strive in specific climates and need months to grow and cultivate. Fentanyl, on the other hand, is made from chemicals in makeshift labs in a matter of hours.

In 2016, fentanyl deaths surpassed heroin deaths for the first time in history. In 2018, there were twice as many.

What Feelings Does Fentanyl Produce?

Fentanyl works by blocking pain receptors in the brain. By doing so, it increases the production of dopamine. Dopamine is known as the “pleasure chemical” that contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Over time, the high amounts of dopamine chemically change the brain. Once a person becomes tolerant to fentanyl, they will need more of the drug to experience the previous sensations.

What are the Effects of Fentanyl?

The most common fentanyl effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Mental confusion
  • Constipation
  • Skin problems
  • Sweating
  • Breathing trouble
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Itching
  • Constricted muscles
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Physical weakness

Fentanyl Overdose

In 2016, synthetic opioids (especially synthetic fentanyl) became the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths in the US. They were responsible for 50% of all deaths related to opioids, an increase from 14% in 2010.4

In 2017, nearly 70,000 people died from drug overdoses. Opioids such as fentanyl and heroin were responsible for 68% of those deaths.5

Signs of fentanyl overdose

  • Purple of blue color on fingernails or lips
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to speak or move
  • Slowed or stopped breathing or heartbeat


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr67/nvsr67_09-508.pdf
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html
  3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/fentanyl-other-synthetic-opioids-drug-overdose-deaths

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