What is Fentanyl?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2019
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Fentanyl, also known as fentanil, is an extremely strong narcotic analgesic, or pain reliever, that belongs to the opiate family of drugs. It is usually used in the management of chronic pain. Its action in the body is similar to that of morphine and is available in several different dosing formats including patches and injections. Fentanyl causes a variety of side effects and should be handled with caution. It should only be used under a doctor's supervision by those who have developed a tolerance to other pain relieving medications; use often results in physical dependency.

The drug with the generic name fentanyl is distributed under several brand names, including Duragesic, Actiq, Fentora, and Sublimaze. It acts to relieve pain by affecting receptors in the brain and spinal cord, thus reducing the body's ability to feel discomfort. It also lowers the perception and emotional reaction to pain. The drug's action in the body is comparable to morphine and other opioids.


Fentanyl is usually used in the management of chronic pain, most often for cancer patients. It is supposed to be prescribed only if the patient no longer experiences pain relief with other medications. It is administered in several different ways depending on the type of pain relief needed. For long acting constant pain management, it is available in a transdermal patch that is applied to the skin and worn continuously or by intravenous injection. It is also administered orally via lozenges, tablets, or a film applied to the inside of the mouth for quick acting response to episodes of "breakthrough pain."

While usually providing effective pain relief, fentanyl can also cause a range of side effects. The most common include nausea, dry mouth, dizziness, drowsiness, altered mood, constipation, weight loss, and skin irritation. More serious effects can occur that require prompt medical attention include difficulty breathing and a heart rate that is faster or slower than normal. Dosing instructions need to be followed precisely; overdose of fentanyl can lead to death. The medication should be handled with extreme caution since contact with it can be dangerous for anyone for whom it isn't prescribed, especially children and pets.

The use of fentanyl is often habit forming and is considered to have potential for abuse due to its mood-altering effects. It should only be used under the supervision of a doctor to control pain in patients who have developed a tolerance to other narcotic pain relievers. It usually causes physical dependency and patients should be weaned off the medication gradually to avoid withdrawal symptoms. The patient should disclose his or her full medical history including any past substance abuse to the doctor in order to prevent complications with fentanyl.


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