Is Fentanyl Lethal to the Touch?
Touching fentanyl will not cause opioid toxicity. However, claims of accidental overdoses by touching the drug continue circulating. The International Journal on Drug Policy published an exposé on a 2021 video depicting a police officer allegedly overdosing on fentanyl after incidental exposure to the powder form of the drug. A statement issued along with the video said the officer overdosed within seconds of handling the fentanyl.
Experts and toxicologists weighed in on the video and determined it was impossible to absorb enough fentanyl transdermally to overdose so quickly. In addition, the law enforcement officer’s symptoms were inconsistent with an opioid overdose.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used to treat severe pain. As a prescribed pharmaceutical, it is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is often used to treat advanced cancer pain.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl has many forms, including tablets, transdermal patches, lozenges, and liquid for IV use in medical centers.
Illicit fentanyl, both pharmaceutical and illegally manufactured fentanyl, can be purchased on the street as powder, pills, liquid, and other forms. It can be taken orally, sublingually (under the tongue), and transdermally (through the skin via patches). In addition, fentanyl is snorted, smoked, or injected.
Although fentanyl provides relief for severe pain, it’s also a sedative and may produce a euphoric effect similar to heroin and other illicit opioids.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), people with substance use disorder (SUD) purchase fentanyl that may have the following street names, among others:
- King ivory
- Dance fever
How Does Fentanyl Work?
Like other drugs in the opioid family, fentanyl binds to opioid receptors in the brain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these areas control pain and emotions. Once in the brain, fentanyl depresses the central nervous system and respiratory functions.
After a period of regular use, the brain adapts to fentanyl, and it becomes difficult to experience pleasure without the drug.
Side effects of fentanyl include:
- Sedation and relaxation
- Feelings of happiness or euphoria
- Nausea and vomiting
- Urinary retention
- Drowsiness and dizziness
- Respiratory depression
Due to its potency and the biological mechanisms of fentanyl, it is highly physically addictive. Taking fentanyl as prescribed reduces this risk. However, individuals who use more than they should or those who use street fentanyl are at risk of physical addiction.
Drug addiction is a serious illness. People with substance use disorder involving fentanyl may experience withdrawal symptoms if the drug is unavailable, which makes quitting extremely difficult.
Addiction is an illness that’s difficult to recover from, but you don’t have to do it alone. Experts at Zinnia Health offer treatment programs individualized to your needs and medication-assisted detox to help you quit safely. Contact our experts at (855) 430-9439 to learn more.
Types of Fentanyl
There are two types of fentanyl: pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl and illicit fentanyl.
Pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl pills are white, brown, blue, orange, purple, or yellow. They come in various shapes with imprints denoting the strength or manufacturer. Fentanyl pills are sold under the brand names Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, which means it’s not derived from the poppy plant like natural opioids such as morphine and codeine. It’s created in labs using synthetic materials with a similar chemical structure.
Illicit fentanyl is available on the streets as powder, paper blotted with liquid fentanyl, eyedrops, nasal sprays, and pills. Unlike pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl, illegal labs produce illicit fentanyl without supervision. Fentanyl may be mixed with other drugs like heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and xylazine, also known as Tranq. This makes street fentanyl exceptionally dangerous.
Dangers of Touching Fentanyl
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl can be absorbed through inhalation, oral exposure, ingestion, and skin contact.
In addition, fentanyl can be disseminated in the following ways:
- Air contamination
- Water contamination
- Food contamination
- Agricultural contamination
Although the skin is one way to absorb fentanyl when the drug is specially prepared for transdermal patches, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services states that first responders who come in contact with the drug have a low risk of clinically significant absorption.
Even though this is the case, a document on fentanyl from the CDC reads, “First responders are advised to use NIOSH-certified Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear(CBRN) Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) with a Level A protective suit when entering an area with an unknown contaminant, or when entering an area where the concentration of the contaminant is unknown.”
This highlights the importance of first responders protecting their skin and oral passageways from fentanyl exposure when concentrations are unknown.
Children and Fentanyl Skin Exposure
As of May 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that accidental exposure to transdermal fentanyl patches may be deadly to children.
These patches provide pain relief to patients in extreme pain. However, children might mistake them for stickers or temporary tattoos.
To reduce the risk of your children finding these patches:
- When wearing a patch, cover it with an ace bandage or adhesive dressing to prevent it from falling off.
- Make sure patches are out of reach, preferably in a locked cabinet and out of sight.
- Dispose of used patches promptly by placing them in a separate trash bag and burying them in other waste.
Symptoms of Fentanyl Skin Contact
According to Ohio State University, even if your hands were covered in fentanyl patches, it would take nearly 14 minutes to receive 100 µg of fentanyl. You are unlikely to develop any toxicity symptoms during this time.
However, fear that you’ve come in contact with fentanyl may lead to symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, hyperventilation, and chills. According to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, these symptoms are not associated with opioid overdoses but are indicators of anxiety or a panic attack.
For opioid toxicity to occur, it must enter your bloodstream. If you’ve touched fentanyl, avoid touching any part of your face until you wash your hands.
If you’ve accidentally ingested fentanyl, you can develop toxicity within minutes. During this time, blood oxygen levels drop, causing hypoxia and the following:
- Shallow breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty staying awake
- Impaired motor skills
Accidental touching is unlikely to cause opioid toxicity. If you are concerned about skin exposure after touching fentanyl, contact poison control.
Treatment for Fentanyl Contact
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, it only takes 2 mg of fentanyl to cause a deadly overdose.
Signs of an overdose include:
- Tiny pinpoint pupils
- Losing consciousness
- Weak or no breathing
- Choking or gurgling sounds
- Limp body
- Cold or clammy skin
- Bluish skin (especially nails and lips)
To reverse the effects of fentanyl overdose, take the following steps:
- Administer naloxone (Narcan) — if there is naloxone nearby, spray it into their nose and turn them on their side. This life-saving drug counteracts the effects of fentanyl.
- Call 911 — timely medical assistance is pertinent. Continue to monitor their vital signs while speaking to the 911 operator. If they wake up and lose consciousness again, administer another dose.
- Begin CPR — keep them breathing.
If you see fentanyl nearby, do not touch it. Wait for emergency services to arrive.
Reclaiming Control Over Fentanyl Addiction
Fentanyl addiction is part of an opioid use disorder (OUD). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, treatment for opioid use disorder begins with medication-assisted therapy to minimize the discomfort of withdrawal. This includes the use of medications like buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone.
To address the psychological struggles of addiction, those with opioid use disorder need behavioral therapy. Evidence-based behavioral therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) provide tools to eliminate negative thoughts and drug-seeking behaviors while encouraging positive changes.
If you or someone you know has an addiction to fentanyl and could benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, contact a Zinnia Health expert at (855) 430-9439. We offer a comprehensive approach to therapy that has helped thousands of individuals achieve lasting sobriety.