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Overdose Deaths in 2021 Reached the Highest Record in History

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Overdose Deaths in 2021 Reached the Highest Record in History Fueled by Fentanyl. Infographic about Fentanyl Facts

Fentanyl Fuels Overdose Deaths to New Heights

In 2021, drug-overdose deaths in the United States topped 100,000 for the first time in a calendar year. This record high was fueled by the spread of illicit forms of fentanyl coming into the country at rates never seen before. According to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 107,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses last year, representing a roughly 15% increase from 2020. This surge in drug-related deaths is alarming public health officials, who have been working to address the nation’s opioid crisis for several years.
While there has been some progress made in recent years in terms of reducing prescription opioid use, the rise of illicit fentanyl has offset these gains. It is often mixed with other drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, without the user’s knowledge, which can dramatically increase the risk of overdose. In light of these trends, it is clear that much more needs to be done to prevent drug overdoses and save lives.

Where is this Deadly Fentanyl Coming From?

Much of the illegal drug trade in America is fueled by illicit drugs made in clandestine labs in Mexico. These cartel-made drugs then pour through the U.S. border, often hidden in or people traveling through border checkpoints. The result is a steady stream of illegal drugs into the country that fuels the black market and contributes to the serious problems of addiction and overdose. While there have been some efforts to stem the flow of these drugs, it remains a significant challenge for law enforcement and one that continues to cause great harm to the American people.
The border crisis has been a major contributor to the influx of fentanyl in the U.S. According to U.S. law-enforcement authorities, the current state of our borders leaves much to be desired in terms of deterring smuggling operations. The lack of security at the border is a critical factor in the ongoing opioid crisis in America. The only way to effectively combat this problem is to address it at its source: the cartels operating in Mexico. Only by shutting down these illegal drug factories can we hope to make a dent in the supply of fentanyl coming into the country.

Fentanyl Poisoning

Infographic for Physical Effect and Potency of Fentanyl AnaloguesEncounters with fentanyl can also be accidental as dealers commonly combine it with stimulants, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, or painkillers pills (fentapills), to increase its potency. Many people consider fentanyl-related deaths to be poisonings, especially when the users do not realize they are taking the powerful drug. This can sometimes happen when people use fake pills that are made to look like less powerful prescription opioids but contain fentanyl.
A small amount of fentanyl can cause respiratory depression and death. Fentanyl-related deaths are typically classified as overdoses, but they can also be accidental poisonings if the person does not know they are taking the drug. The diversifying fentanyl market—from its expanding geographic reach to its appearance mixed in with stimulants and fake pills — makes it difficult to see the end of the growing crisis.

How to Prevent Overdoses?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid pain reliever. It is similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent. Fentanyl is prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain, typically after surgery. However, it is also made and sold illegally. Fentanyl can be mixed with heroin or cocaine to increase its potency or pressed into pills that look like other prescription painkillers. Illicit fentanyl is often the cause of overdose deaths in the U.S. because people using it are unaware of its strength and potential dangers.
There are several ways to help prevent fentanyl-related deaths. Here are some ideas we can apply to our daily lives as concerned citizens in a time of crisis:

  • People who use illegal drugs should never use them alone but instead, have someone with them who can call for help if needed.
  • Naloxone (a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose) should be readily available in an emergency.
  • People who use illegal drugs should be educated about the risks of fentanyl and how to avoid it.

We can help prevent unnecessary deaths from this powerful drug by taking these precautions.

“The fentanyl crisis has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and yet social media outlets have largely remained silent on the issue. Given the power of social media to reach large audiences, it is puzzling that more has not been done to use this platform to raise awareness about the dangers of fentanyl and how to avoid becoming a victim of this epidemic.”
— Clare Waismann

Societal Consequences of an Overdose Crisis

The fentanyl overdose crisis has had far-reaching consequences for society. The loss of life has been devastating, with families left to grieve the sudden death of a loved one. Communities have been affected as well, with the crisis putting a strain on local resources. first responders, hospitals, and police forces have all been stretched thin as they try to keep up with the influx of overdose cases.
In addition, the crisis has also taken a toll on the economy. The cost of medical care and law enforcement has skyrocketed, and productivity has suffered as a result of the increased number of people dying from overdoses. The fentanyl overdose crisis has had a profound impact on society, and it will take time and effort to heal the wounds it has inflicted.

Although there is no one answer for how to prevent illicit fentanyl deaths, there are several things our administration can be done to help, including:

  • Increase public awareness about the dangers of fentanyl and other opioids, especially for young adults.
  • Make naloxone more widely available. Naloxone is a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose.
  • Train first responders in how to recognize and treat an opioid overdose.
  • Increase access to treatment and mental health services for all.
  • Develop policies to reduce the demand for illicit opioids.

Each of these measures can help to prevent illicit fentanyl deaths. But, it is important to remember that there is no single solution to the problem of opioid addiction and overdose. A comprehensive approach is needed to address this complex issue. By working together, we can reduce the number of deaths caused by fentanyl.


Reviewed by Clare Waismann, Registered Addiction Specialist (M-RAS), Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor (SUDCC II), founder of Waismann Method® Advanced Treatment for Opiate Dependence
All topics for the Opiates.com blog are selected and written based on high standards of editorial quality, including cited sources. Articles are reviewed by Clare Waismann, RAS/SUDCC, and for accuracy, credibility, and relevancy to the audience. Clare Waismann is an authority and expert on opioid dependence, opioid use disorder, substance dependence, detoxification treatments, detox recovery, and other topics covered on Opiates.com. Some articles are additionally reviewed by one of the Waismann Method’s specialists or third-party sources, depending on their field of expertise. For additional information and disclaimers regarding third-party sources and content for informational purposes only, please see our Terms of Service.

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