Synthetic opioids other than methadone have been driving a devastating surge in U.S. overdose deaths over the last two years, exacerbated by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
From 2019 to 2020, drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids increased by 56%, according to data from the U.S. Centers and Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Understanding what synthetic opioids are, as well as their risks, can be helpful to know, particularly if you or a loved one has a history of drug abuse or illicit drug use.
What Are Synthetic Opioids?
Synthetic opioids are opiate drugs that are fully man-made or synthesized in a laboratory.
This stands in contrast to natural opiates such as morphine, or semi-synthetic opioids such as the illicit drug heroin, which are at least partially derived from the opium poppy plant.
Some synthetic opioids, including methadone and tramadol, are legally prescribed for chronic pain or severe pain conditions. Prescribed use is generally monitored by a healthcare provider.
What Are The Types Of Synthetic Opioids?
Opioid drugs can be categorized as naturally-occurring, semi-synthetic, or fully-synthetic.
Morphine and codeine are two examples of natural opioid analgesics. They are prescribed for the treatment of pain. Codeine can also be found in some cough and cold medications.
Partially Synthetic Opioids
Most prescription opioid medications are semi-synthetic opioids. They can differ in their potency, half-life, and most common medical use. All are generally prescribed for pain relief.
Common examples of partially-synthetic opioids include:
- hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
Some opioid drugs are fully-synthetic, meaning their chemical structure and effects are similar to natural opiates, but they are not naturally occurring or derived from natural elements.
Examples of synthetic opioids include:
- fentanyl analogs (e.g. furanylfentanyl, acetylfentanyl)
- nitazenes (e.g. isotonitazene, or ISO)
What Are The Dangers Of Synthetic Opioids?
Many synthetic opioids, other than methadone and buprenorphine, are illicitly sold or manufactured, which means their production is not regulated to provide for safety.
This means there are no purity or dosage controls, which poses a significant public health risk.
Fentanyl, for example, is prescribed for pain conditions, but it’s also manufactured illegally and commonly laced into other illicit substances, including cocaine and fake benzodiazepines.
Overdose Risk And Synthetic Opioids
A primary danger of synthetic opioids is the risk of overdose. Other than methadone, synthetic opioids such as illicit fentanyl are driving the current surge in U.S. overdose deaths.
Fentanyl is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and some of its analogs such as carfentanil are even stronger. This means even a small amount can cause an overdose.
Fentanyl exposure can occur through oral use, snorting fentanyl, smoking fentanyl, injecting fentanyl, or less common methods of drug use such as plugging.
What Are The Risk Factors For Overdose?
There are a couple of factors that can place a person at increased risk for overdose involving one or more illicit opioids.
Top risk factors include:
- illegal drug use (including the use of non-opioids)
- history of prescription opioid abuse
- opioid use disorders
- combining opioids with other central nervous system depressants (e.g. alcohol, benzodiazepines)
- combining opioids with stimulants (e.g. cocaine, meth, amphetamines)
- using opioids following detox/incarceration (due to reduced tolerance)
- survivor of a past overdose
One of the major problems currently seen in the U.S. is that illicit synthetic opioids (e.g. fentanyl) have saturated the illicit drug market, and are commonly laced into various illicit drugs.
This means pills marketed as Xanax, or hydrocodone, for instance, could actually contain fentanyl. And there is no regulator to step in and ensure an illicit drug’s purity or ingredients.
What Are The Signs Of Synthetic Opioid Overdose?
Knowing the signs of an opioid overdose can be life-saving. While signs can differ if more drugs are involved, there are many common signs of opioid overdose that are useful to know.
Signs of synthetic opioid overdose may include:
- sudden collapse
- difficulty breathing
- respiratory depression (slowed/stopped breathing)
- very tiny pupils
- severe drowsiness
- mental confusion
- ashen, clammy skin
- bluish fingernails or lips
- weak pulse
- low blood pressure
Treatment For Synthetic Opioid Overdose
Opioid overdose can be reversed with the administration of the drug naloxone, an opioid antagonist that can block the effects of opioids in the body.
With some synthetic opioids, multiple doses of naloxone may be required in order to revive someone/reverse overdose. This is due to the high potency of some of these drugs.
If someone has overdosed as a result of a substance use issue, or substance use disorder, additional treatment may be recommended to prevent future or fatal overdose.
Treatment Options For Opioid Addiction
At FreeRehabCenters.net, our mission is to connect those with opioid addiction to effective treatment options that don’t put families in a financial bind.
If you are uninsured, or underinsured, one of our treatment specialists may be able to help you find free or low-cost addiction treatment options near you.
Treatment services for opioid addiction may include:
- opioid detox for the management of withdrawal symptoms
- medication-assisted treatment
- behavioral therapy
- group therapy
- pain management
- relapse prevention
- addiction counseling
- aftercare support
Find Substance Abuse Treatment Today
Don’t wait to seek help. Call our helpline today to learn more about opioid addiction treatment or to find an addiction treatment program for yourself or a loved one.
Published on November 10, 2022
Free Rehab Centers aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)