Why it’s so hard to identify fentanyl

Fentanyl's high risk of dependence & overdose make it extremely dangerous. It's important to know what to look for & what forms it comes in to minimize your risk.

Ophelia team
Fentanyl pills
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Fact checked by
Arthur Robin Williams, MD

Fentanyl is a controlled substance used to treat severe pain. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies it as a Schedule II narcotic because it poses a high risk for dependence and addiction, as well as overdose when taken in high doses or combined with other substances. In the simplest terms, it’s powerful, dangerous stuff.

While avoiding fentanyl altogether is the best way to minimize risks, it’s not always easy because it’s in the street drug supply. But every little bit of information helps, so here’s what you should know about identifying fentanyl.

What forms does fentanyl come in?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl can be prescribed by a doctor. It can be administered as a shot, applied to the skin as a patch, or given as lozenges. Like morphine, it’s commonly used to treat severe pain, including chronic ailments or post-surgical recovery.

Aside from being a prescription drug, the opioid is also used illegally. The fentanyl used outside medical settings is often produced in labs. This synthetic form may come in a powder, though it can also be dropped onto blotter paper, put in nasal sprays, or used in eye droppers. In some cases, it can even be made to resemble other prescription drugs.

What color is fentanyl?

In its basic form, fentanyl doesn’t have a remarkable appearance. It can come as a brick, powder, or pills and is usually white and powdery. In its liquid state, it’s usually clear. Unfortunately, this makes fentanyl challenging to identify.

Some drug dealers are also lacing other substances with fentanyl, which could make it nearly impossible to spot. For example, other hard drugs, such as heroin, are laced with fentanyl to increase their intensity. The opioid can also be combined with other drugs, including cocaine or methamphetamine, and pressed into pills to look like prescription medications.

Drug dealers may pass these illicit pills off as other street drugs, like ecstasy. They can even mimic prescription oxycodone; benzodiazepines, such as Xanax; and stimulants, such as Adderall. Although you can’t always tell if a drug contains fentanyl, it may create patches of discoloration in methamphetamine and cocaine, which are typically pure white.

Recently, fentanyl has appeared in bright colors, which sparked a warning from the DEA. Known as rainbow fentanyl, the drug has appeared in many areas of the country. According to the agency, brightly colored fentanyl has been seized in several forms, including pills, powders, and blocks that look like sidewalk chalk. The DEA warns that cloaking the highly addictive and potentially deadly drug in this way could cause it to be passed off as candy, thus enticing young people to try it. In all likelihood, the colors and markings are meant to help makers and traffickers trace their supply.

Does fentanyl have a taste?

What does fentanyl taste like? Unfortunately, not much. Since the drug lacks a distinctive taste, it’s even easier to combine with other drugs. People can’t tell when other substances have been laced with fentanyl, which is one of the reasons why opioid-related drug overdoses continue to rise.

Why is fentanyl so dangerous?

When administered in a medical setting by professionals, fentanyl can be delivered in controlled doses according to the patient’s specific needs. When used as an illicit substance, fentanyl is extremely dangerous. It’s 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, so it only takes a little to produce a strong high. This makes it a cheap option, but due to its strength, overdoses are common. Moreover, many people who receive fentanyl don’t know they’re getting it with other drugs, so they may take a large amount without realizing it. As little as 0.5 mg of fentanyl could lead to an overdose or risk of death for someone without an opioid tolerance.

Coping with fentanyl addiction

Ophelia is here to help if you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to fentanyl. Our proven telehealth approach to opioid treatment is designed to eliminate barriers to care. We match you with a care team who will meet with you to determine your needs and prescribe buprenorphine/naloxone as needed.

Receiving personalized treatment is as simple as going to a local pharmacy and connecting with your care team from home. We work with a growing number of insurance providers, including Medicaid, and offer a private pay option to make our program as accessible as possible.


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