New Studies Show Another Reason Why Fentanyl Overdoses are Often Fatal

Going unconscious

Opioid addiction has always been a crisis of life or death. Yet with virtually all other opioid drugs, the few minutes EMTs and good samaritans have to respond to an overdosing addict are crucial in saving that person’s life. But now that new data suggests addicts overdosing on fentanyl can die before they even lose consciousness, the time in which people can respond to that overdose is shorter than ever.

New Findings Paint a Dire Picture for Opioid Addicts

A new study by researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that fentanyl can stop breathing and heart rate while the addict is still conscious. This finding is quite alarming because other opioid drugs involve the user going unconscious during an overdose and then experiencing a halt in their breathing and heart rate while unconscious. The new findings are also alarming because they suggest that the window of time between when a user consumes a dose of fentanyl and when they experience cardiac arrest and death is extremely short.

To that point, the researchers found through EEG testing that fentanyl began to impair breathing about four minutes before any change in alertness on the part of the patient. In contrast, other opioids do not usually impair breathing in users until after the user has lost alertness (gone unconscious). Further, patients only had to consume a dose of fentanyl 1,700 times lower than typical concentrations of other opioids to experience breathing impairment and a heart rate drop. That suggests fentanyl is so potent that users only need to consume a minuscule amount of it to risk breathing impairment, cardiac arrest, and death.

“This explains why fentanyl is so deadly: It stops people’s breathing before they even realize it.”

The researchers immediately recognized what these findings meant. According to senior study author Patrick Purdon, “This explains why fentanyl is so deadly: It stops people’s breathing before they even realize it.” Dr. Purdon’s concerns are warranted. One of the primary factors that allow for opioid deaths to be prevented is the window of time between when an addict begins overdosing and when he or she dies. Those critical minutes give nearby persons and EMTs time to respond, apply naloxone, and administer other life-saving techniques.

Fentanyl overdoses do not provide for those few crucial minutes. The fact that such a drug can cause death before the addict even loses consciousness (and before the addict even appears to be overdosing) likely accounts for why fentanyl has become the leading cause of opioid-related death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 82% of opioid overdose deaths in America today involve fentanyl or a synthetic opioid like fentanyl.

A Difference in Potency, Fentanyl Versus Other Opioids

The sheer danger that addicts face when they use fentanyl comes down to the extreme potency of the drug and the fact that an overdose on fentanyl is more likely to be fatal and more likely to occur rapidly. While every overdose is different for every addict, when it comes to fentanyl, such overdoses are almost entirely attributable to the drug’s potency. For context, the CDC estimates that fentanyl is said to be about 50 times more potent than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine.

If curbing fentanyl deaths was just a matter of protecting addicts from fentanyl, the work ahead might be simple, if still challenging. However, recent data suggests it’s not just a matter of curbing fentanyl trafficking because, increasingly, fentanyl is being found in other drug supplies. Strains of fentanyl have been detected in other opioids, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, cocaine, meth, and even cannabis. Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, commented on the danger this poses to all addicts. “An increase in illicit pills containing fentanyl points to a new and increasingly dangerous period in the United States. Pills are often taken or snorted by people who are more naïve to drug use, and who have lower tolerances. When a pill is contaminated with fentanyl, as is now often the case, poisoning can easily occur.” Her point is well taken because if fentanyl is spread across the drug supply, no addict in America will be safe from risking an overdose on it (even if addicts are actively trying to avoid fentanyl).

And for the hard data on fentanyl-tainted drug seizures, NIDA’s researchers found that the total number of law enforcement seizures of fentanyl-contaminated drugs surged from 68 seizures in 2018 to 635 seizures in 2021, an almost 10X increase in just three years. Law enforcement seized 42,202 pills with some fentanyl in them in 2018, but they seized 2,089,186 pills with fentanyl in them in 2021. Further, seizures of powder containing fentanyl increased from 2018 to 2021, from 424 to 1,539. The total weight of powder seized increased from 298.2 kg in 2018 to 2,416.0 kg in 2021.

The Need for Treatment

A perfect storm of dangerous conditions, the fact that fentanyl causes fatal overdoses, the fact that it causes them extremely rapidly, combined with the fact that fentanyl is becoming increasingly widespread in the drug supply means one thing: people addicted to drugs in the United States are at perhaps greater risk than ever before.

That’s why people struggling with drug addiction must seek help at qualified treatment centers as soon as possible. If you know someone using drugs, please don’t hesitate to get them help. Contact a residential rehab center before it is too late.


  • Oxford. “An EEG Biomarker of Fentanyl Drug Effects.” The National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2022.
  • USNews. “Brain Study Shows How Fentanyl Kills.” US News, 2022.
  • CDC. “Drug Overdose Deaths.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020.
  • CDC. “Fentanyl Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020.
  • NIDA. “Law enforcement seizures of pills containing fentanyl increased dramatically between 2018-2021.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2022.



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.