Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid derivative of the painkiller fentanyl, although carfentanil is known to be at least 100 times stronger. Unlike fentanyl, which retains limited medical usefulness in treating pain in people who are unresponsive to other opioids or as care for patients with terminal cancer, carfentanil has no medical use for humans.
The reason for this is that carfentanil was never, in any way, intended for use on humans. Carfentanil was first synthesized in 1974 and is used to sedate extremely large animals weighing thousands of pounds for surgery, including buffalo, moose, and elephants.
Many people who take carfentanil do so unknowingly, as it is more frequently being used by illicit drug manufacturers to cut drugs like heroin, as carfentanil is much easier and cheaper to synthesize. Someone will take what they think is heroin and instead overdose on carfentanil, sometimes instantly.
The amount of carfentanil lethal to human consumption can be measured in micrograms. Carfentanil is so potent and so deadly that overdosing is basically guaranteed, and nearly just as likely to be fatal.
On a technical level, carfentanil works the same way as other opioids do, entering the brain and stimulating the opioid receptors into overproduction. The opioids naturally produced by your body act as inhibitors in the central nervous system, blocking pain signals from reaching the brain and helping to manage stress.
Carfentanil mimics these opioids and binds with the brain’s opioid receptors to release a massive flood of opioids that create much more powerful feelings of pain relief and sedation than your body could do on its own. It has the secondary effect of boosting the levels of another brain chemical called dopamine, which causes the euphoric “high” that comes with opioid abuse.
Or, carfentanil would do these things, but it is far more likely and is usually the case, that someone taking carfentanil would instead immediately overdose before even feeling any of the effects of the drug.
The issue with carfentanil abuse, if not already apparent, is that because it works so quickly and is so overwhelmingly lethal, you are more likely to observe the signs of a carfentanil overdose than an addiction.
There is almost not enough time for someone to be abusing carfentanil long enough for other signs to appear before an overdose, the most obvious and potentially fatal sign occurs. If someone is lucky enough that they have been taking extremely small and very diluted doses of carfentanil, they may be able to avoid overdose but are going to rapidly become addicted.
The signs of carfentanil addiction, as they have been observed, include:
While they may also exhibit certain behavioral signs consistent with substance use disorders, such as stealing money or valuables to pay for carfentanil, attempting to hide their carfentanil use from others, and being unable to stop using carfentanil due to withdrawal symptoms, it is more likely that you will notice the extreme side effects of carfentanil abuse before these more subtle signs.
If you are experiencing the signs of carfentanil addiction yourself or observing them in the behavior of someone you care about, it is essential that you seek addiction treatment immediately to avoid permanent brain and organ damage as well as the danger of a lethal overdose.
Medical detox is the necessary beginning to just about any effective addiction recovery treatment, but it is even more so with carfentanil. It is imperative to clear your system of carfentanil as soon as possible to keep it from causing any more physical and mental damage than it might already have done.
Opioid detox itself does not usually present any life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, but carfentanil withdrawal can present atypical symptoms, so it is much safer to detox under experienced medical supervision, where any complications can be safely managed.
A detox doctor can also administer medications as part of an opioid tapering schedule and medical maintenance therapy to slowly wean you off of carfentanil.
Once you have achieved sobriety and the withdrawal period has passed, the next step in carfentanil addiction treatment is checking into an addiction rehabilitation treatment program. While detox is important is assuring your short-term health and safety, you cannot protect yourself in the long-term without learning how to properly manage your addiction.
Whether it is outpatient or inpatient, during your recovery treatment program, you will receive a customized plan based on your needs that will most likely involve a combination of individual therapy and counseling, group therapy, 12-step therapy, relapse prevention planning, and more.
It is nearly impossible to overstate just how dangerous and unbelievably potent carfentanil is. It has roughly 100 times the potency of its already incredibly lethal counterpart fentanyl, and potentially 10,000 times the quantitative power of morphine.
To give another perspective, a standard paper clip weighs about 140,000 milligrams. It only takes 10 milligrams of carfentanil to successfully sedate and possibly even kill a 15,000-pound African elephant, that’s 75 times the weight of a 200-pound human.
Carfentanil’s toxicity has frequently been compared to nerve gas and that same 10-milligram dose, if sufficiently diluted within a room of 500 people, would be more than enough to kill all of them.
Powdered carfentanil is nearly identical in appearance and texture to heroin or cocaine, and there is almost no way for someone to tell if the heroin or cocaine they are about to take has been cut with enough carfentanil to kill them until it is too late.
And in the event of a carfentanil overdose, the go-to opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan may not be enough to effectively bring someone back from an overdose. Typically, about one to three doses of Narcan may be required to reverse a heroin overdose, and fentanyl usually takes three times that amount. Carfentanil often does not work at all, even if it is administered in the immediate event of an overdose.
For many substances, the danger of addiction is what it can do to your body and mind over a period of time, but in the case of carfentanil addiction, the danger is in the short-term impact of as little as a single use.
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National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, June 06). Fentanyl. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/fentanyl
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018). Carfentanil. Retrieved from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/carfentanil#section=Top