What is fentanyl? Why is it so dangerous?
Fentanyl is a powerful man-made opioid that has been prescribed for decades as an anaesthetic and for pain management, but has been used illicitly in Canada since 2012. It is about 100 times more potent than morphine, and up to five times more potent than heroin.
A very small amount of fentanyl - smaller than a grain of rice - is enough to cause a potentially fatal overdose. Accidental opioid poisoning deaths have risen at an alarming rate in Alberta since 2012, with 305 apparent accidental opioid poisonings recorded so far in 2019.
What are the signs or symptoms of a potential fentanyl overdose?
If you or someone you're with has used drugs and shows any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately.
- Slow breathing or not breathing at all
- Unresponsive to stimulation/sternal rub
- Lips and/or fingernails turning blue or purple
- Body is limp/person is unconscious
- Choking or vomiting
- Gurgling or snoring sounds
- Cold, clammy skin
- Severe sleepiness or won't wake up
- Trouble walking and/or talking
- Slow heartbeat
- Constricted pupils (pupils are tiny)
How should you treat a fentanyl overdose?
- If you suspect someone has suffered a fentanyl overdose, call 911 immediately.
- If you have a naloxone kit, use it.
- If you have to leave the person unattended, move them into the recovery position. Roll them onto their side with their mouth downward allowing fluid to drain, keep chin up to keep throat open, and keep arms and legs locked to stabilize this position.
- Stay with them until help comes. If you can’t do so, write down what drugs they took and leave it with them.
Source: Alberta Health Services
What is naloxone? Where can it be obtained?
Naloxone is a medication that can temporarily reverse the effects of an overdose from opioids such as fentanyl and heroin. Its effects only last between 30 to 90 minutes, so you must seek further medical attention when administered.
Naloxone kits are available free of charge and without a prescription from walk-in clinics and pharmacies throughout Alberta. For a listing of locations where you can pick up a naloxone kit, please visit: http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/info/Page15586.aspx.
Is treatment for fentanyl addiction available?
Opioid addiction is extremely powerful, but it can be overcome with help. Treatment options such as Opioid Replacement Therapy have been proven very effective in beating opioid addiction, and are available throughout the Province of Alberta to those who are in need.
For information about how and where to access opioid recovery treatment in Alberta, please visit https://opioidrecoveryalberta.ca/.
Fentanyl Facts vs. Myths
- Approximately two individuals die every day in Alberta from accidental opioid poisonings.
- Opioids can be found in prescribed medications that include: syrups, tablets, capsules, nasal sprays, skin patches, suppositories and liquids for injection.
- When prescribing opioids for chronic non-cancer pain, typically the goal is to control acute pain and assist with palliative care. It is not prescribed to completely eliminate pain.
- Opioid use during pregnancy can increase the risk of having a miscarriage or a premature delivery. During pregnancy, there is a substantial risk that the unborn child can form an addiction to the drug.
- According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, from 2016 to 2017, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 16 patients a day for opioid poisoning.
The number of fentanyl-related accidental opioid poisonings in Alberta is declining.
FALSE - Fentanyl-related poisonings continue to increase, with 89 per cent of accidental poisonings being fentanyl-related in the first quarter of 2019. Alberta Health reports that almost all opioid poisonings in our province are now related to fentanyl.
Medicine containing opioids are safe if they are prescribed by a doctor.
FALSE - Substance use disorder can form quickly. Any form of medicine containing opioids can drastically alter brain chemistry. Long-term use of opioids creates a dangerous chemical dependence for the drug, causing a tolerance to develop, and increasing the risk of opioid poisonings.
The only people who suffer from substance use disorder are homeless, criminals, male, minority, and come from a low socioeconomic background.
FALSE - No one is immune to the growing opioid epidemic. Substance use disorder does not depend on the individual’s gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. People who use drugs are usually influenced by their lifestyle. Most commonly, substance use disorder is the result of a variety of both genetic and environment factors. These factors can include: abuse and neglect, genetics, mental health, race, parental substance abuse, and poverty versus wealth.
Women who use opioid substances should immediately quit using when they find out that they are pregnant.
FALSE - Immediately stopping use of opioids can be harmful for both the mother and the baby. Pregnant women using opioids should contact their health provider who will prescribe a safe alternative, like methadone. If you are facing an addiction and pregnant you can seek assistance at the Leduc Addiction & Mental Health Clinic at Centre Hope (Alberta Health Services) or at 780-986-2660. You can also call AHS Rural Opioid Dependency Program at 1-844-383-7688 or Motherisk at 1-877-427-4636 or visit www.motherisk.org.
Clean needle exchange programs are enabling and encouraging those with substance use disorder to continue using.
FALSE - Creating clean needle exchange programs is a means of meeting drug users halfway and supporting their health concerns. It is a positive initiative that recognizes that quitting drugs may not be a desirable goal for everyone. Clean needle exchange programs have been established to reduce harm, prevent the transmission of viral infections (Hep C, HIV) and decrease infections due to use of dirty needles. These programs more than pay for themselves, due to decrease in hospitalization rates of viral infections. Commonly, people who use drugs are isolated from help, and clean need exchange programs can assist them in becoming integrated back into the community.