What makes fentanyl so dangerous?

Posted: 5:50 PM, Aug 27, 2016
Updated: 2016-08-27 17:50:02-04

There's been a  sharp upswing  in fatal  overdoses  from the painkiller fentanyl in recent years, which the Drug Enforcement Administration  says  is thanks at least in part to how powerful it is.

A dose of the drug is about  100 times more potent  than the same amount of morphine.

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Certain synthetic versions can be 10,000 times stronger. They're marketed as  elephant tranquilizer  — and now they're finding their way  into recreational drugs  in the Midwest.

Both fentanyl and morphine act on  the same receptors  in the brain as a sedative, to suppress pain and to slow down breathing. Like morphine, fentanyl is used to  treat severe pain , sometimes during recovery from surgery. So what makes fentanyl so much worse?

It was designed in 1960 explicitly to  act faster and be stronger  than morphine.

This is thanks to its chemical structure. While morphine is hydrophilic, meaning it dissolves in water, fentanyl is lipophilic, meaning it dissolves in lipids and fats.

The  blood-brain barrier  naturally keeps out most hydrophilic molecules, but it lets in many lipophilic ones.

Fentanyl is more than  130 times more likely  to enter the brain than morphine — so a similar dose can have a much more significant impact.

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