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  • Synthetic opioids are substances completely made in a lab. They are known for their powerful numbing (analgesic) effects on the body. Fentanyl, meperidine, and tramadol are three examples of synthetic opioids sold as prescription drugs.

    While some synthetic opioids have approved medical use as painkillers, they can come with many potential health risks. Illicit drug markets also sell illicit opioids, including non-approved versions of synthetic opioids.

    Natural Opioids Vs. Synthetic Opioids

    Opioids are usually separated into three categories: natural opioids/opiates, semi-synthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids. They mostly affect the same parts of the brain but are made in different ways.

    Natural Opioids/Opiates

    Natural opioids, or opiates, are taken from the opium poppy plant. Morphine and codeine are two examples of opiates. Opiates have long histories as painkillers and as targets of drug abuse.

    Semi-Synthetic Opioids

    Semi-synthetic opioids still come from the natural poppy plant but are modified to have different chemical structures. Examples of semi-synthetic opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and buprenorphine.

    Many semi-synthetic opioids are approved for medical use. Their potency compared to natural opiates varies.

    Synthetic Opioids

    Synthetic opioids do not come from the poppy plant but are made entirely in a lab. Fentanyl, methadone, meperidine, and tramadol are examples of synthetic opioids. They may be legally or illegally manufactured and sold.

    Many derivatives of fentanyl exist, also known as fentanyl analogs. These include acetyl fentanyl, carfentanil, and furanylfentanyl. A fentanyl derivative may have a very high potency compared to other opioids, and also be much more dangerous.

    Risks Of Synthetic Opioids

    Synthetic opioids tend to be stronger than naturally-derived opioids. They may lead to more pain relief, but also more health risks.

    Synthetic opioid use can cause short-term side effects, including drowsiness, nausea, impairment, and constipation. They may also cause more severe health problems, up to and including death.

    Dependence & Addiction

    Most synthetic opioids are controlled substances according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. They have a high potential for drug abuse and physical dependency.

    Taking synthetic opioids can lead to addiction, especially in the long-term. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids can also cause severe withdrawal symptoms, which can lead to more frequent use.

    Illicit Drug Use

    In recent years, more illegal synthetic opioids have been seized by law enforcement. This may point to synthetic opioids becoming more popular on the illegal drug market. 

    The strength of synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl, may make it an appealing target for dealers and buyers alike.

    Drugs bought on the street may be mixed with other substances. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues may be mixed with heroin or cocaine. This can make these substances even more dangerous, especially if the buyer does not know what mixture of substances they are buying.

    Synthetic Opioid Overdose

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states there were over 31,000 synthetic opioid overdose deaths in 2018. Synthetic opioids made up over two-thirds of all opioid-related overdose deaths. They play a devastating role in the ongoing opioid crisis.

    Synthetic opioids can cause severe respiratory depression, or slowed breathing. This can lead to unconsciousness, coma, and death. The risk of overdose increases dramatically if synthetic opioids are taken with alcohol or benzodiazepines.

    An opioid overdose can be reversed with naloxone, but immediate medical attention is needed to increase the chances of recovery.

    Treating Synthetic Opioid Abuse

    Synthetic opioids can be helpful to relieve chronic pain but come with a number of health risks. Recent trends in overdose statistics point to synthetic opioids being a more likely cause of death than traditional opiates and prescription opioids. 

    The rise of synthetic opioid use is concerning due to their potency compared to traditional opioids.

    While opioid use is a widespread problem in the United States, there are treatment options available that can prevent an overdose. To learn about how we treat unhealthy opioid use, please contact us today.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Synthetic Opioid Overdose Data | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center
    Journal of Addiction Medicine - Misuse of Novel Synthetic Opioids: A Deadly New Trend: Journal of Addiction Medicine
    National Institute on Drug Abuse - Commonly Used Drugs Charts | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
    National Library of Medicine - Opioids - PubMed
    United States Drug Enforcement Administration - Drug Fact Sheet: Narcotics | DEA

    Medically Reviewed by
    Kimberly Langdon M.D.
    on March 11, 2021
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