Prince's Autopsy Result Highlights Dangers of Opioid Painkiller Fentanyl

Fentanyl, an opioid, is 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

ByABC News
June 2, 2016, 5:31 PM

— -- News that the death of Prince was found to have been caused by a fentanyl overdose has once again drawn attention to the ongoing opioids epidemic and the powerful painkiller.

While the resurgence of heroin has gained attention in recent years, the drug fentanyl is a huge concern to health authorities. The drug, which is generally used in a medical setting as a painkiller, is the most potent opioid available for use in medical treatment, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The drug is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the DEA. Fentanyl was developed for the pain management treatment of cancer patients. However, its powerful opioid properties have made it an attractive drug for abusers, according to federal drug officials. Sometimes marketed solo and often mixed with other drugs, including heroin -- and the consequences can be deadly.

The initial autopsy report for Prince did not specify the manner in which the drug was taken. But in a medical setting, the drug is given in lozenge, patch or injectable form. The drug has also been sold illicitly in powdered or pill form and has been used to supplement heroin.

The drug is part of a complex growing problem with opioid abuse, both from prescription pills and illicit drugs like heroin. Federal law enforcement sources told ABC News they are seeing more and more of the powerful narcotic making its way on to American streets.

In 2014, more than 28,000 people died from an opioid overdose, which is more than any year on record, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men are more likely to die from an opioid overdose, according to the CDC.

The drug is so dangerous that it even poses a threat to first responders who encounter it, officials said.

“Fentanyl will remain a significant threat to law enforcement personnel and first responders as minute amounts -- equivalent to a few grains of salt -- of fentanyl can be lethal, and visually, can be mistaken for cocaine or white powder heroin,” the DEA explained in its threat assessment of the drug.

Dr. Lolita McDavid, an opioid expert and medical director of Child Advocacy and Protection at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, told ABC News that fentanyl-laced heroin has become a big problem for major cities, including Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago.

"What we know is we’re seeing more and more accidental overdose drug deaths," she said. "People start out on opioids like oxycontin," then transition to other drugs like heroin.

Fentanyl is used for both short-term and long-term pain relief and works to reduce pain by switching off pain receptors in the brain, which can lead to feelings of euphoria, according to medical literature.