How Fentanyl is Shaping the Opioid Epidemic in 2022: Statistics, Information, and Resources

Everyone’s attention has been focused on COVID-19 over the last two years, but something else has been going on that’s even more deadly for certain age groups: the fourth wave of the opioid epidemic in the US. It’s been calculated that 2021 saw more than 100,000 drug overdose fatalities, and the CDC says that fentanyl was probably involved in over 50% of those cases. According to the data that’s currently available, it looks like increasing numbers of drug users are taking fentanyl in combination with other drugs – but experts still aren’t sure why.

Drug overdose fatalities are on the rise – and have been for a while

Due mainly to this feature, it’s being said that we are now in the fourth wave of the opioid epidemic. The first three waves of the epidemic were characterized by fatalities from specific drugs, but many of the overdoses in this wave have fentanyl in common, often with other drugs involved. You can see the usual culprits in the autopsy reports: methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin, to name just a few. What’s new to experts is that fentanyl is also present in so many instances. This development has addiction researchers, health officials, doctors, and other experts worried about what’s in store as the opioid epidemic progresses.

To put it into perspective, consider the number of people aged from 18 – 45 who died of a fentanyl-related overdose in 2021: 41,587. Guess how many people in the same age range died of COVID-19? A bit more than half that. This statistic is part of the rapid rise in overdose deaths that started in 2020, and is still continuing in 2022. The question is, what caused this to happen, and what can be done to slow or reverse the trend? It’s clear by now that COVID-19 is partly to blame; it destroyed local support networks and increased issues like loneliness, depression, and fear for many. This exacerbated drug use, but there isn’t any reason why it would have driven up overdose deaths so quickly as well; based on the information we have at this point, that seems to be the fault of increased fentanyl use.

Why fentanyl is so dangerous

Fentanyl isn’t just a substitute for other opioids; it’s far stronger than most, which makes it lethal in even tiny amounts. Plus, since distributors are constantly mixing fentanyl (which is very cheap to produce) with other drugs to improve their profit margins, many drug users consume it by accident, which often leads to an overdose. Here are a few things to know about fentanyl:

  • Originally a commonly prescribed painkiller, fentanyl is now commonly used to feed drug addiction due to its strength relative to other drugs
  • Counterfeit pills (like Percocet or Oxycontin) are likely to contain fentanyl
  • Fentanyl can be 50 times more potent than heroin, and up to 100 times more potent than morphine
  • 2 milligrams are enough to cause a fatal overdose

Why is the illegal use of fentanyl so widespread?

The trend is obvious, but its causes still aren’t fully understood. Experts are pretty sure of one thing, though; many drug users aren’t aware that the substances they’re taking are laced with fentanyl. Some people take it willingly, but others end up unknowingly consuming fentanyl when they intended to take something else.

Because fentanyl has remained cheap and easy to produce while other opioids have gotten harder to obtain, dealers and manufacturers often mix their products with fentanyl to cut costs and increase profits. Even though many fentanyl-related overdoses happened because the users didn’t know what they were taking, this doesn’t seem to be a concern for the people who are putting fentanyl into more and more of their products.

What’s being done to address this issue?

Anyone who’s trying to mitigate the damage done by the opioid epidemic has their work cut out for them. For one thing, they’re taking on a massive problem, and getting enough support and funding for a problem this big is a challenge in and of itself. For another thing, this is a highly politicized issue, and many policy-makers have hesitated or declined to support proven measures simply because it would damage their chances of re-election.

For example, areas that have been provided with fentanyl test strips, clean needles, and expert supervision have seen a reduction in overdose deaths – this has been demonstrated many times. However, opponents say that taxpayer money shouldn’t support drug users, and the idea doesn’t deserve financial or political support.

Another approach – which is both more controversial and more effective – is making safe injection sites available for anyone who uses illegal drugs. There are free fentanyl test strips so that nobody takes the drug without knowing it, and if users ever overdose at one of these sites, trained staff members are able to immediately reverse the overdose with naxolone. Again, this has been proven to be effective at multiple sites worldwide, but in the U.S. it hasn’t been implemented widely due to lack of support.

Opioid addiction resources

  • Lincoln Recovery – this addiction recovery center offers a variety of customized rehab plans, together with evidence-based therapy, trained staff that’s available 24/7, and veteran support groups.
  • Opiate Addiction & Treatment Resource – this website contains accurate, current information regarding addiction, dependence, and opioids in general, plus information on various treatment options.
  • Amethyst Recovery Center – this addiction recovery center has online resources, guides for those who know someone who struggles with addiction, and a 24/7 helpline.
  • Find Addiction Rehabs – this online resource offers testimonies of people who are recovering from addiction, as well as a treatment center directory.

Whether or not you’ve been personally affected by the opioid epidemic, it’s obvious that this is having a devastating affect on the nation. Now that the pandemic is lessening, it’s time to turn our attention to the epidemic that’s been coming and going for decades. Maybe if we rebuild community outreach systems and improve addiction treatment options, we’ll have a chance of reducing opioid- and fentanyl-related deaths in the coming years.

Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:March 24, 2023

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