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What Are Synthetic Opioids?

Synthetic opioids are drugs that mimic the effects of natural opioids like morphine and heroin but can be far more potent and unpredictable. The danger lies in their potential to cause severe respiratory depression, leading to fatal overdoses.

Synthetic opioids, such as carfentanil and fentanyl, are often mixed with other substances, making it difficult for users to know what or how much they are taking. This lack of transparency can have deadly consequences. 

Woman’s hands counting assorted pills. Synthetic opioid abuse has played a significant role in the opioid crisis in the United States.

In recent years, the United States has witnessed a devastating rise in synthetic opioid-related deaths. This article will dive deeper into what synthetic opioids are, their dangers, and the steps needed to address this pressing public health issue.

Key Takeaways

While there may be some limited medical use for synthetic opioids, their integration into the street supply poses significant risks. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are chemically produced, contributing to a heightened risk of overdose and death.
  • Synthetic opioid abuse has played a significant role in the opioid crisis in the United States, necessitating urgent prevention and treatment efforts.
  • Effective prevention strategies include education, prescription monitoring, harm reduction programs, and expanding access to addiction treatment services to combat the synthetic opioid epidemic.

Our teen treatment center helps teens with substance use disorder. Call us at (845) 479-6888 for more information. 

Opioids: Explained

Opioids, often used for pain management, can have powerful and sometimes dangerous effects on the human body. These substances act on specific brain and spinal cord receptors to reduce pain perception, creating a sense of euphoria and relaxation. While natural opioids like morphine and codeine originate from the opium poppy, synthetic opioids are chemically manufactured in laboratories.

The dangers of opioids are two-fold. First, they have a high potential for dependence and addiction, leading to individuals relying on these drugs even when no longer needed for pain relief. Second, opioids can cause severe respiratory depression, where breathing slows down to dangerous levels, which can be fatal in overdose cases.

One of the most concerning aspects in recent years is the emergence of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. These substances are far more potent than their natural counterparts, making overdoses more likely. They are often mixed with other drugs, increasing the risk of unintentional overdose.

Citizens, healthcare providers, and policymakers alike must understand the potential risks of opioids. This understanding is essential for making informed decisions about pain management, addiction treatment, and harm reduction strategies. 

History of Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids date back to the early 20th century when chemists began developing these drugs in laboratories. The first synthetic opioid, Demerol (pethidine), was created in 1939. 

Further research led to the creation of methadone in the 1940s, initially aimed at treating addiction. 

In the 1960s, fentanyl emerged as a potent synthetic opioid used in medical settings. These early developments paved the way for a range of synthetic opioids, each with distinct properties, which have since played a significant role in pain relief and addiction treatment.

Modern advancements in synthetic opioids have developed even more potent compounds, such as carfentanil and sufentanil, primarily used in anesthesia and pain management. Pharmaceutical companies have also introduced extended-release formulations, enhancing the duration of pain relief. 

However, these innovations have brought about concerns due to the increased risk of misuse and overdose. Regulatory efforts and public health strategies continue to evolve in response to these challenges.

Examples of Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids encompass a variety of compounds, each with distinct properties and purposes. Here are four notable examples:


Fentanyl is an incredibly potent synthetic opioid, estimated to be 50 to 100 times more influential than morphine. It is primarily used to ease severe pain, often through patches, tablets, or injections. 

Its potency makes it particularly dangerous when not used as prescribed, as even a tiny amount can lead to a fatal overdose. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl has been a significant contributor to the opioid crisis.


Another synthetic opioid is methadone, used in medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction. It has a long duration of action, helping to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings. When taken under medical supervision, methadone can be an effective tool for managing opioid addiction.


Tramadol is an artificial pain relief medication that is classified as an opioid. It is typically prescribed to alleviate pain that is moderate to moderately severe in intensity. 

It works as an opioid and a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. While it’s considered less potent than some other synthetic opioids, it can still be habit-forming and has the potential for misuse.


Carfentanil is a highly potent synthetic opioid, estimated to be 10,000 times stronger than morphine. It is not intended for human use but by veterinarians to immobilize large animals, such as elephants. 

The illicit use of carfentanil has led to numerous overdose deaths due to its potency. These synthetic opioids highlight the diversity within this drug class, ranging from powerful pain relievers to medications designed to combat addiction. 

Synthetic Opioids and the Opioid Crisis

Synthetic opioids have played a pivotal and devastating role in the opioid crisis. The crisis, characterized by a surge in opioid-related overdose deaths, has primarily been fueled by the illicit production and distribution of potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl. 

These substances are frequently mixed with other drugs, including counterfeit prescription pills and heroin, often unknown to people. The result is a highly unpredictable and lethal combination that sharply increases overdose fatalities. 

Synthetic opioids, due to their potency and ease of production, have emerged as a significant contributor to the ongoing opioid epidemic. It demands urgent attention and strategies for harm reduction and prevention.

Dangers and Risks of Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids pose significant dangers and risks, with grave consequences for those who use them. Here are the key concerns associated with synthetic opioids:

Overdose and Death

Some synthetic opioids are exceptionally potent, even in small doses. This potency makes the risk of overdose extremely high. Individuals often miscalculate the amount they take, leading to slowed breathing, unconsciousness, and, in many cases, fatal overdose. The unpredictability of street drugs laced with synthetic opioids further heightens this risk, as people may inadvertently consume a lethal dose.

Addiction and Dependence

Synthetic opioids are highly addictive. Even legitimate medical use under a doctor’s supervision can lead to dependence. Their euphoria and pain relief can create a decisive psychological and physical reliance on these substances. 

Addiction to synthetic opioids can spiral quickly, leading people to prioritize obtaining and using the drug above all else. It often results in severe social, financial, and health consequences.

Physical and Mental Health Risks

Prolonged use of synthetic opioids can have severe physical and mental health implications. Physically, chronic use can lead to various health problems, including respiratory issues, heart problems, gastrointestinal complications, and weakened immune function. Mental health can also suffer, with individuals experiencing anxiety, depression, and cognitive impairments.

Efforts to combat the opioid crisis should include expanded addiction treatment access and public awareness campaigns. This way, we can minimize the devastating impact of these powerful synthetic drugs.

Synthetic Opioid Abuse: Treatment and Prevention Strategies

Illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are often mixed with other drugs, leading to a heightened risk of overdose and death. Individuals who abuse these substances may do so unknowingly, as they are frequently sold as counterfeit prescription pills or laced into street drugs like heroin. 

The allure of their potent euphoric effects can quickly lead to addiction and dependence. Strict law enforcement measures must be necessary to disrupt the illegal supply chains to combat the abuse of synthetic opioids.

Recognizing the Signs

It is crucial to identify the indicators of synthetic opioid misuse to provide timely intervention and assistance. Common indicators include:

  • Drastic Behavioral Changes: Sudden shifts in mood, personality, or social circles.
  • Neglecting Responsibilities: Decline in work or school performance, neglecting obligations.
  • Physical Symptoms: Constricted pupils, drowsiness, slurred speech, and track marks for injected opioids.
  • Financial Strain: Frequent requests for money, stealing, or selling belongings.
  • Social Isolation: Withdrawal from family and friends, spending more time with new acquaintances.
  • Frequent Health Issues: Recurrent infections, respiratory problems, or unexplained illnesses.
  • Drug Paraphernalia: Discovery of needles, pipes, or pill bottles.

If someone you know displays these signs, approach them compassionately. Please motivate them to seek professional help for substance abuse or addiction.

Finding Treatment

Finding treatment for synthetic opioid abuse is a crucial step toward recovery. Here are some avenues to consider:

  • Medical Detoxification: For those physically dependent on synthetic opioids, medical detox in a supervised setting can help manage withdrawal symptoms safely.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): MAT involves medications like methadone or buprenorphine, combined with counseling and therapy, to reduce cravings and support recovery.
  • Inpatient Rehabilitation: Residential programs offer intensive therapy and support, removing individuals from environments that may trigger drug use.
  • Outpatient Programs: These provide flexibility, allowing individuals to receive treatment while maintaining their daily routines.
  • Counseling and Therapy: Individual and group counseling helps address underlying issues contributing to addiction.

Prevention Strategies

Prevention strategies for synthetic opioid abuse help address this ongoing public health crisis. Here are some pivotal approaches:

  • Education: Widespread public education on the dangers of synthetic opioids and the risks associated with their misuse.
  • Prescription Monitoring: Stricter monitoring of prescription opioids to prevent diversion to the illicit market.
  • Harm Reduction: Distribution of naloxone (Narcan) to reverse opioid overdoses and syringe exchange programs.
  • Access to Treatment: Expanding access to addiction treatment services to reduce barriers to care.
  • Community Support: Creating supportive communities and resources for individuals in recovery.
  • Regulation and Enforcement: Strengthen enforcement efforts to combat illicit drug production and distribution.

Melding treatment and prevention efforts are essential in addressing synthetic opioid abuse and its devastating consequences.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Which classes of opioids are synthetic?

In the United States, several classes of opioids are synthetic. These include pharmaceutical fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, novel synthetic opioids, and new synthetic opioids. 
Unlike opiates originated from the opium poppy plant, these synthetic opioids are created through chemical synthesis. They interact with opioid receptors in the brain and can be much more potent than natural opioids. 
The Drug Enforcement Administration monitors and regulates these substances due to their association with opioid use disorder and presence in illegal drug markets. Doctors and patients should stay informed about their chemical structure and potential dangers, similar to the way information is shared about opiates, as well as other substances.

What is the main difference between natural and synthetic opioids?

The main difference between natural and synthetic opioids is their origin and production. Natural opiates, like morphine and codeine, are initiated from the opium poppy plant. 
In contrast, synthetic opioids, including pharmaceutical fentanyl and new opioids created in laboratories, are chemically synthesized. These synthetic versions can be far more potent and are often linked with increased overdose risks. It is making them a subject of concern in opioid-related studies, distinct from substances like cocaine and others.

Discover Freedom From Opioids 

Addiction can devastate teens and their futures, especially when it comes to synthetic opioids. At our teen treatment center, experts blend individual and group therapy to address your unique needs. Engage in educational workshops to gain valuable insights, partake in recreational activities for a holistic approach to healing, and explore the benefits of holistic therapies for comprehensive recovery. Always remember early intervention can make a significant difference. Call us today at (845) 479-6888 and prevent addiction from derailing lives.

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