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What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is typically prescribed for cancer patients who are least 18 years old although at least one form of the drug has been approved for use in patients as young as age 16.

Because fentanyl is so potent, prescriptions for the drug should be given only to those who have experienced difficulty controlling their pain through other methods. For example, patients who continue to experience breakthrough episodes of pain despite being on a regular schedule of other narcotics may be given fentanyl as well.

Like other narcotics, fentanyl relieves pain by making changes to how the brain and nervous system responds to painful episodes.

How many people use fentanyl?

While there are no statistics available on the exact number of individuals prescribed fentanyl, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has taken steps in recent years to limit access to the drug.

Since fentanyl is so powerful and can lead to serious side effects or even death if used incorrectly, the FDA now requires doctors to take extra steps before issuing a prescription.

Physicians must enroll in a special program to be able to prescribe fentanyl. Then, these prescriptions can only be filled at pharmacies that are also enrolled in the program. Finally, patients must sign a statement saying they understand the risks associated with fentanyl use.

What are the different types of fentanyl available?

Fentanyl is a generic name, and the medication is sold in several forms under different brand names.

Brand names for fentanyl include the following:

  • Abstral
  • Actiq
  • Duragesic
  • Fentora
  • Onsolis
  • Sublimaze

Depending on the brand, fentanyl may be administered as a lozenge, tablet or patch. While fentanyl patches, also known as transdermal systems, are convenient, they have also been the subject of numerous recalls in the past decade and appear to be more likely to cause sometimes fatal overdoses.

How many people have been injured by fentanyl patches?

No one knows for sure exactly how many people have been injured by fentanyl patches. However, a 2010 analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports at least 364 deaths in 13 states have been attributed to prescribed fentanyl. The actual number nationwide may be much higher.

In addition, that number does not include deaths by those using the drug without a prescription and those who are accidently exposed to the drug. The FDA issued an advisory in 2012 regarding the use of fentanyl around children after it reviewed the cases of 26 children who were seriously injured or killed after accidently coming in contact with the drug.

What are the signs of a fentanyl overdose?

The use of fentanyl can lead to many side effects including depression, weakness, vomiting, anxiety and seizures among others.

While side effects can be serious, an overdose can be fatal. Signs of an overdose include:

  • drowsiness
  • slow, shallow breathing or stopped breathing
  • dizziness
  • smaller pupils
  • confusion

If an individual appears to be having an overdose, call 911 immediately.

Individuals experiencing changes in their heart rate, a decreased urge to breathe or fainting should also seek immediate medical attention.

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