We recently discovered that the singer and songwriter Prince died from an overdose of fentanyl. Apart from the many questions surrounding Prince’s death, many of us are asking other questions. Many of these questions surround the drug itself: What is fentanyl? Why is it so deadly?
Fentanyl is the generic name for an extremely powerful painkiller. How powerful is it? Some experts believe that fentanyl is fifty times stronger than a related drug, heroin, and one hundred times more powerful than another related drug, morphine. Since we all know that heroin and morphine are no slouches when it comes to powerful drugs, fentanyl must deliver quite the punch.
It does. The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists recommends that experienced doctors should prescribe fentanyl only for pain in cancer patients. That’s it. The fact that a pharmacy organization notes that people need experience to administer the drug suggests that the drug can be deadly in the hands of amateurs.
The fact that the organization also recommends that physicians use fentanyl for one purpose also hints at the drug’s power. Clearly, the organization—and others—believe that even experienced professionals should handle fentanyl with care.
They have good reason to be cautious. Prince is the most famous person to suffer from the effects from fentanyl, but he’s far from the only one. In one seventy-two hour period in Chicago in 2015, heroin, often laced with fentanyl, caused the overdoses of seventy-four people.
These overdoses often occur because people think they’re taking heroin, so they take heroin and fentanyl in large amounts. But fentanyl is so much more powerful than heroin and can easily cause a user to overdose.
It appeared that Prince used fentanyl to ease the pain of the chronic injuries he suffered while performing, not in conjunction with heroin. But this doesn’t make his death any less tragic. His death points to the power of fentanyl and other painkilling drugs like it known as opioids or opiates.
The U.S. federal government recently called for labels to warn people of the potential dangers of fast-acting opioids such as fentanyl. These labels will come too late to help Prince. Will they help others? Time will tell.