Medical authorities have discovered what caused the death of the musician Prince: He overdosed on the drug fentanyl.
The announcement may have been the first time you heard about fentanyl. It’s a drug that can be very bad news if used in a way other than recommended by doctors.
Fentanyl is a very powerful synthetic opioid that doctors sometimes prescribe for patients who are in extreme pain, like right after serious surgery, or cancer patients nearing the end of their lives.
Prince reportedly had hip surgery in the mid-2000s and he may have still been in some pain, but it’s unclear how and where he got the drug. People sometimes get it from their doctors, but there’s also an illegal version of fentanyl, with street names like Apache, China White, China Girl, and TNT.
Just how powerful is fentanyl? Up to 50 times stronger than heroin, and up to 100 times stronger than morphine. It’s supposed to be used only by patients who have the highest level of pain.
How dangerous is it? Well, when officials seize a batch of fentanyl, they have to wear the highest-grade Hazmat suit, because the drug can also be absorbed through your skin.
So it’s easy for someone to overdose on fentanyl. In fact, between 2013 and 2014, fentanyl overdoses increased by 80 percent in the U.S.
Hiding in plain sight
Sometimes fentanyl is sold by itself; sometimes it’s mixed with heroin, cocaine, or other drugs. So a person who uses those drugs also risks using fentanyl without knowing it. And because even a small amount of it can be dangerous or deadly, the user wouldn’t know they’re risking their life.
Illegal fentanyl mixed with heroin may also be a factor in the increase of overdose deaths involving heroin, which have more than tripled in four years.
Fake meds, real danger
Fentanyl can hide out in other places, too. Counterfeit (fake) pain relievers and anxiety medications that contain fentanyl are being sold on the street. The pills may be disguised as ordinary prescription drugs like Percocet, Xanax, and Norco.
These fake pills can be much cheaper than the real versions—and, no surprise, they’re also leading to overdoses. You should never take a prescription drug unless a doctor prescribed it for you and it came from a real, trusted pharmacy.
What this all comes down to is: If you use any one of several different illegal drugs, you could also be using fentanyl. And Prince’s death is a reminder that fentanyl can give you much more than you bargained for.
How many opioid overdoses involve fentanyl? Find out here.