There has been significant concern that the number of fentanyl-related deaths in the UK has recently been on the rise. In this article, we assess whether fentanyl is a widely used drug in the UK and how many people have died as a direct result of fentanyl use.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is around 50 to 100 times more potent. This makes it extremely dangerous if it is misused.

Fentanyl is typically used as a painkiller for severe pain, including after an operation or serious injury or as pain relief for cancer. It may also be used for other types of chronic pain if weaker types of pain relief have stopped working.

It works by blocking pain signals between the brain and the body and can also reduce the anxiety and stress caused by pain. In the UK, it is only available on prescription and can come in a number of formats, including patches, lozenges and nasal spray.

Fentanyl ‘analogues’ are drugs from the same family that can vary in strength.

Is Fentanyl Present in the UK?

Fentanyl is available for legitimate medical use in the UK but only on prescription. Fentanyl, along with a number of other synthetic opioids, is considered a Class A drug when possessed, supplied or used outside legitimate and prescribed medical settings.

There is plenty of evidence that fentanyl is available on the black market and is being misused in the UK. The National Crime Agency reported that fentanyl is believed to have emerged in late 2016. As well as being misused in its own right, it has been found added to heroin.

The latest figures for the UK have shown that the total number of fentanyl-related deaths was 68 in 2022. 57 of those deaths occurred in England and Wales, 6 occurred in Scotland and 5 in Northern Ireland. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as many people can experience addiction and other serious harms without dying. Fentanyl abuse in the UK is undoubtedly on the rise, but it is not yet close to the ‘opioid epidemic’ experienced in the US.

How is Fentanyl Entering the UK?

While medicinal fentanyl is used in the UK, the US experience suggests that most of the prescription-type drugs being misused are manufactured illicitly and smuggled into the country.

This can be done in a number of ways. A recent BBC investigation, for example, found that similar synthetic opioids known as nitazenes were being routinely advertised online and smuggled into the country inside dog food and catering supplies.

What Are the Risks and Dangers of Fentanyl Abuse?

Even when used legitimately, fentanyl can have a number of side effects, including:

  • Constipation
  • Nausea and sickness
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Stomach pain
  • Headaches
  • Confusion

Fentanyl is extremely addictive, and because it is so strong, there is also an increased risk of overdose. Overdose can cause stupor, changes in pupil size, clammy skin, cyanosis, coma, and respiratory failure leading to death.

Who is Most at Risk of Fentanyl Abuse in the UK?

As fentanyl is an emerging problem in the UK, it is difficult to paint a precise picture. In general terms, though, painkiller misuse is more common in younger age groups. 8.0% of 16 to 19-year-olds had been estimated to have misused prescription painkillers over the previous year compared with 3.0% of 55 to 59-year-olds.

Some other factors that might have an impact include socioeconomic factors and a previous history of opioid misuse.

How to Recognise Fentanyl Addiction

Using fentanyl can cause addiction. You may develop a dependency, meaning you suffer strong cravings and withdrawal symptoms when you do not use the drug.

Some physical signs of fentanyl use and addiction could include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Weakness
  • Unsteady gait
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fainting
  • Tremors
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Itchy skin

Behavioural signs could include:

  • Experiencing cravings for fentanyl
  • Mood swings
  • Being unable to stop or cut down on usage
  • Lying to doctors to obtain more of the drug
  • Going through unofficial/illegal routes for the drug
  • Using more frequently or at larger doses
  • Losing interest in other things, becoming withdrawn

Early detection and intervention is extremely important as an untreated fentanyl addiction can be very harmful and dangerous.

What Treatment Options Are Available for Fentanyl Addiction?

Fentanyl is an extremely addictive substance, but, as with other addictions, fentanyl addiction can be successfully treated. There are different approaches to addiction treatment, but a full recovery programme may include several steps:

  • Supervised detox to help you come off the drug and deal with the withdrawal symptoms.
  • Therapies and other treatments to deal with the psychological aspects and root causes of substance misuse and addiction.
  • Aftercare support to help you maintain your recovery and avoid relapse.

If you are looking for fentanyl addiction treatment in the UK options, inpatient rehab is generally considered the most effective way to treat any serious addiction. Local drug and alcohol services and local or national support groups can also be very valuable.

What Steps Can Be Taken to Prevent Fentanyl Abuse?

Steps have already been taken to criminalise the misuse of fentanyl and similar opioids that are starting to appear. As with all substance misuse issues, education is key when it comes to preventing fentanyl abuse. Awareness campaigns, healthcare providers and communities can all play a part in preventing the existing fentanyl problem from becoming an epidemic.

Fentanyl is very destructive when misused, and its presence in the UK does appear to be growing. It’s very important to be aware of the risks and to act quickly. If you are worried about your own use of this drug or that of a loved one, you should seek professional advice immediately.

Get in touch today to find out how we can help.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: June 7, 2024

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.