In recent years, the opioid epidemic has gotten even worse at an astounding rate. Overdose deaths have soared, eclipsing previous records. This is partly due to the increase of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and its analog carfentanil is making its way into illicit heroin supplies. Carfentanil, the drug that is used as a veterinary sedative, has been found in hundreds of fatal overdoses and more may be on the horizon. Carfentanil addiction is rare because the drug is more likely to kill you. However, an opioid use disorder involving carfentanil can be extremely dangerous.
Learn more about carfentanil addiction and how it can be treated.
Carfentanil is a powerful synthetic opioid that is primarily used to treat large mammals after surgeries, injuries, or with other painful ailments. The drug is most commonly used to treat elephants because its high potency is effective on even large bodies. Carfentanil is a fentanyl analog, which means its chemical structure and effects are similar to fentanyl. However, carfentanil is 100 times stronger than fentanyl, making it 10,000 times stronger than morphine.
The drug is so potent that only a small amount is legally made in the United States and it supplies all of the zoos and animal hospitals in the country. However, illicit trade from China and other sources contribute to its higher availability in the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 400 people in Ohio and nearly 500 people in Florida were killed in carfentanil-related overdoses in 2016.
Carfentanil works in a way that’s similar to other opioids. It attaches to opioid receptors in the brain to cause block pain signals, leading to potent analgesic effects. However, the drug is much more powerful than other opioids. A small amount can suppress your nervous system to dangerous levels. Your breathing may slow or stop when you take a powerful opioid like fentanyl or carfentanil.
A substance use disorder that involves opioids is notoriously difficult to overcome. Addiction often leads to the use of illicit heroin, which is usually where people encounter carfentanil. To avoid experiences with powerful synthetic opioids, it’s important to recognize the signs of opioid addiction early in yourself or someone else. The quicker you seek help for a substance use disorder, the more likely you are to avoid deadly consequences. The most common signs of opioid addiction include:
Addiction is defined as the continued, compulsive use of opioids despite the serious consequences that can result. If you have experienced medical, social, legal or financial consequences as a result of opioid use, you might have severe opioid use disorder.
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Addiction is serious, especially when it involves powerful synthetic opioids like carfentanil. It’s rare for a person to become addicted to carfentanil. Because the drug is so potent, it would more likely kill you than lead you to addiction. However, someone who is already addicted to opioids may come across illegally made and traded carfentanil. If you can take a small enough dose to survive, it would produce an incredibly strong high, which could lead to dependence or addiction.
If you have developed an opioid use disorder, addiction treatment is your best option to help you achieve recovery. Treating opioid use disorder as soon as possible can help you avoid some of the most dangerous consequences of addiction including infectious diseases, overdose, and long-lasting legal troubles. Opioid addiction doesn’t always require medical detox, which represents the highest level of care in addiction treatment.
Other drugs can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms like seizures and delirium tremens. However, opioid withdrawal can cause symptoms that are similar to flu-like nausea, vomiting, sweating, diarrhea, body aches, and an increase in body temperature. In some cases, these symptoms can lead to dehydration, which can be potentially dangerous. In any case, opioid withdrawals are unpleasant, and some people report experiencing some of the worst flu symptoms of their lives.
Because of this, medical detox is recommended. In a detox program, you will receive 24-hour care every day for about a week, depending on your specific medical needs. You may also be treated with medications to help manage your symptoms or ween you off of the drug safely. Medical detox is also the best level of care for someone with other co-occurring severe medical needs like injuries, diseases, or infections. Clinicians will also be on staff at detox facilities to help connect you to the next level of care after treatment.
Addiction treatment needs to be tailored for your individual needs to be effective. When you first enter an addiction treatment program, you likely will go through an intake and assessment process that may include a biopsychosocial assessment. This is a questionnaire you will complete with your therapist to help pinpoint your specific needs. After detox, those needs will help determine the level of care that will best serve you.
If you have pressing medical or psychological needs that require high levels of care, you may enter an inpatient program with 24-hour medical and clinical monitoring care. If you have a poor recovery environment (the place you live might complicate your recovery efforts and treatment), you might enter a residential program.
If your medical, psychological, and social needs have been stabilized to the point where you can live on your own without jeopardizing your sobriety, you may continue to intensive outpatient treatment or outpatient treatment. Clients typically go through multiple levels of treatment in a process called the continuum of care, which means you move through different treatment levels while pursuing the same treatment plan.
After treatment, you may also take advantage of an aftercare program that connects you to community resources that can help you continue your commitment to recovery. Maintaining your sobriety is most successful when you continue to actively pursue recovery.
Carfentanil’s danger is in its sheer power. When you take a dose of an opioid that is too high for your body to handle, it will start to suppress your nervous system to the point of respiratory depression. This means that you take fewer and more shallow breaths or stop breathing completely, leading to oxygen deprivation, brain damage, coma, and death. Other symptoms include hypotension, disorientation, vomiting, and bradycardia.
However, the effects of carfentanil on the human body are understudied because of its potential danger, so the exact lethal dose of the drug in humans is unknown.
There have been a few accidental exposures to medication or animal tranquilizers, instances of illicit use of carfentanil, and one use of it as a chemical weapon that showcases its deadly potential.
The drug has made its way into heroin supplies in the United States in recent years. In most cases, users don’t realize they are taking heroin that’s been adulterated with more powerful opioids.
Heroin is often diluted with inert substances to stretch profits. Cheap and powerful opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil are added to give users the impression that they are buying high purity heroin. Users take a normal dose of the drug cocktail, thinking its heroin and overdose.
The use of illicit opioids is also closely tied to intravenous diseases like HIV and hepatitis. Opioid abuse can lead to dangerous, long-lasting consequences if left untreated for too long. When you notice the signs of addiction, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible.
In 2017, a total of 29,406 overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids including fentanyl and carfentanil.
American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
CDC. (2018, July 12). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6727a4.htm
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, August 09). Overdose Death Rates. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre. (n.d.). Yes, people can die from opiate withdrawal. Retrieved from https://ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au/blog/yes-people-can-die-opiate-withdrawal
World Health Organization. (2017, November). CARFENTANIL Critical Review Report – WHO. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/medicines/access/controlled-substances/Critical_Review_Carfentanil.pdf
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Carfentanil. Retrieved from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/carfentanil#section=Top