Over the last decade, the opioid crisis in the US has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, with more than 100,000 adults dying of an opioid-related overdose in 2021 alone. Currently, the main culprit of the epidemic involves the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is about 50 times more potent than heroin.
Although heroin and fentanyl are both opioids, there are some unique features that differentiate them from each other. To gain a better understanding of the differences between a fentanyl addiction and a heroin addiction, please continue reading.
What is heroin?
Heroin is a derivative of morphine, a naturally occurring substance found in the seeds of the opium poppy plant. Heroin is an illicit and highly addictive substance that features a rapid increase in tolerance. Heroin causes a powerful reaction in a person’s brain chemistry as it attaches to opioid receptors, resulting in a flood of dopamine. This leads to the “rush” that is felt upon injecting, snorting or smoking heroin, described as a sense of deep relaxation and euphoria.
What is fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid first introduced in the 1960s as an anesthesia used in surgeries. Fentanyl is now commonly prescribed for managing pain in terminal cancer patients, usually in the form of a dermal patch.
In recent years, this highly addictive, potent substance has been manufactured in foreign labs as analogs, or copies, of prescription medication. Fentanyl has infiltrated the illicit drug market and is found in a wide range of substances. Individuals seeking cocaine, heroin, meth or prescription pills may be unaware that the substance they purchased could contain fentanyl, leading to countless deaths.
What is opioid use disorder?
Opioid use disorder is a condition that occurs when the brain has formed a dependency on an opioid substance. Examples of opioids include heroin, fentanyl and several other prescription analgesics.
Opioid use disorder affects over two million U.S. adults — usually involving patients who take opioids regularly and begin to misuse the medication or those who engage in recreational drug use that seek out opioids in search of a desired effect. The most severe form of opioid use disorder is opioid addiction.
Opioids spark the dopamine pathways of the brain, the neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure responses. Opioid use disorder can develop in as little as two weeks, as the individual becomes dependent on the chemical response the opioid produces in the brain.
How does fentanyl addiction differ from heroin addiction?
While it may seem that fentanyl use is unintentional, some individuals do purposely seek out this opioid, just as others seek out heroin. Both substances are highly addictive and can quickly result in dependency and addiction.
The opioids affect the brain in much the same way, as they both attach to the opioid receptors. The main difference between fentanyl and heroin addiction is the cost and methods of consuming the substances. Fentanyl is less expensive and more potent, making it an attractive option for someone with opioid use disorder. Also, where heroin is typically injected intravenously, fentanyl can be consumed orally in pill form, in addition to several other methods.
The risk of a fentanyl overdose is probably higher in someone with a heroin dependency or addiction, as they may use heroin that is tainted with fentanyl and unwittingly take a lethal dose.
The pathway to recovery for either of these substances depends on participating in a medically monitored withdrawal management program followed by rehabilitation that includes medication supported recovery.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders. Our programs are accredited by The Joint Commission, and result in frequent publications of ongoing research into effective treatment methodologies. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call 866-313-6307.