DENVER (KDVR) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says rates of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, which includes fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, continue to rise.

As the investigation continues into the five suspected overdose deaths in Commerce City, authorities are concerned about a deadly mix of fentanyl-laced cocaine circulating in the community.

The Drug Enforcement Agency said fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine.

What is fentanyl used for?

Pharmaceutical fentanyl was developed for pain management treatment for cancer patients, according to the DEA.

In prescription form, fentanyl is known by the following names, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  • Actiq
  • Duragesic
  • Sublimaze

NIDA also said that when prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl can be given as a shot, a patch that is put on a person’s skin, or as lozenges that are sucked like cough drops.

How does fentanyl work?

The CDC said fentanyl works by binding to the body’s opioid receptors, which are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. After taking opioids many times, the brain adapts to the drug, diminishing its sensitivity, making it hard to feel pleasure from anything besides the drug.

Fentanyl produces the following effects, according to the DEA:

  • Relaxation
  • Euphoria
  • Pain relief
  • Sedation
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Urinary retention
  • Pupillary constriction
  • Respiratory depression

How lethal is fentanyl?

The DEA said two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage. 

According to analysis by the DEA, there are counterfeit pills ranging from .02 to 5.1 milligrams, which they said is more than twice the lethal dose of fentanyl per tablet.

The DEA also said drug trafficking organizations typically distribute fentanyl by the kilogram. One kilogram of fentanyl has the potential to kill 500,000 people.

“It is possible for someone to take a pill without knowing it contains fentanyl. It is also possible to take a pill knowing it contains fentanyl, but with no way of knowing if it contains a lethal dose,” the DEA said.

Signs of fentanyl overdose

The University of Colorado Boulder said to look for the following signs for a fentanyl overdose:

  • Pinpoint (small) pupils
  • Shallow or no breathing
  • Blue or grayish lips/fingernails
  • No response to stimulus (i.e. being pinched)
  • Gurgling/heavy wheezing or snoring sound

CU Boulder said if signs of an overdose are present:

  • Ask if the person is alright and look for a response
  • Make a fist, and use your knuckles to apply downward pressure to their sternum (do not hit them); this is a test to see if they respond to the pain stimulus

If they do not respond, CU Boulder said to:

  • Call 911
  • Administer Naloxone if available*
  • Start CPR

“Naloxone, or Narcan, is a drug that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose by helping a person start breathing again. Naloxone does not cause harm when used on a person that is not experiencing an overdose, so if in doubt, use it,” CU Boulder said.

“Naloxone only works for 30-90 minutes, so it is important to call 911 before administering it, as the person can go back into an overdose even after the Naloxone is administered. They will also need immediate medical attention when the Naloxone wears off.”

People can also get fentanyl test strips and naloxone from one of the many syringe access programs around the state. Find the program closest to you at this link.

People anywhere can buy fentanyl test kits through Bunk Police or DanceSafe. DanceSafe also sells other test kits to help confirm what’s in a substance.