What is it?
First Aid

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid medication used to treat pain, or for anesthesia during surgeries and other medical procedures. Doctors sometimes prescribe a fentanyl patch that goes on the skin to treat chronic or severe pain. Medical fentanyl may also be prescribed as a film, spray or lozenge taken by mouth.

Fentanyl is safe when used exactly as prescribed by your doctor. It can be dangerous if:

  • You drink alcohol or take other drugs that cause drowsiness while using fentanyl.
  • You use fentanyl more often than prescribed.
  • You use someone else’s fentanyl.

Fentanyl is also manufactured illegally and sold on the street, often mixed with or sold as heroin. Because fentanyl is much more powerful than heroin, drug users who inject fentanyl thinking it is heroin are at risk of severe or fatal overdoses. The danger is even greater with more powerful drugs that are related to fentanyl, such as carfentanil.

While poisonings are highly likely among drug users who inject fentanyl, police and first responders who encounter fentanyl in the field are unlikely to be at risk of opioid poisoning.

What are the effects of fentanyl?

When you take fentanyl in the right way, as prescribed by your doctor, you still may have some side effects, such as:

  • Drowsiness
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Constipation

Someone who has taken fentanyl in a way other than prescribed by their doctor may:

  • Become very drowsy or sleepy
  • Have trouble breathing or stop breathing entirely
  • Throw up, and possibly choke on their vomit
  • Go into a coma
  • Die

What should I do about a possible fentanyl overdose or poisoning?

  • If you believe someone has taken fentanyl in a way other than prescribed by their doctor, do not wait for symptoms—call 911 right away.
  • If you take fentanyl that is prescribed by your doctor but are concerned about symptoms or side effects you are having, call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222, chat online or text POISON to 85511.
  • If you are a first responder concerned about fentanyl contact in the field, first wash off any fentanyl on your skin or clothing with water, and then call the poison center for quick advice. Do not use alcohol to wipe off fentanyl as this may increase absorption through the skin.

How can I prevent fentanyl poisonings?

If you are prescribed a fentanyl patch or other fentanyl:

  • Carefully follow your doctor’s instruction every time you use fentanyl.
  • Keep your fentanly up high, out of reach of children, and in a locked cabinet.
  • Safely get rid of patches you no longer need. See our medication disposal page for more information.

If you or someone you know struggles with addiction, visit SAMHSA’s treatment resource page to find help near you.

If you are a first responder concerned about fentanyl in the field, take standard precautions such as nitrile gloves for routine handling and coveralls in highly contaminated areas. Respiratory protection, such as an N95 or P100 is only necessary if there are significant amounts of powder in the air.

For more information, download the NNEPC’s fentanyl fact sheet for first responders.

Last Updated: Monday December 17th 2018