Fact Check: Can You Overdose from Touching Fentanyl?

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Dispelling The Myth

In August of 2021, a video went viral of a police officer who overdosed after touching fentanyl. The video caused much-misinformed panic and unnecessary hysteria. Everyone in the drug world wanted to know, can touching fentanyl kill you?  People were led to believe that one could overdose and die from just touching or even smelling fentanyl. The truth, according to Dr. Susan Julius, is that although it is deadly, one can not overdose or die by just touching fentanyl.

More recently, a woman in Tennessee claimed to have experienced an overdose after picking up a dollar bill from the ground outside of a McDonald’s. She feared that the bill had been coated in fentanyl or a similar substance. However, experts like Dr. Susan Julius confirm that this is completely impossible - touching fentanyl cannot cause an overdose.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a strong synthetic opioid painkiller. When prescribed, it can be used to treat severe pain, for example during or after an operation or a serious injury, pain from cancer or other extreme pain. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and therefore more deadly. Even a small amount of unprescribed fentanyl can cause an overdose and death. Due to its exceptional potency, the cost of buying fentanyl on the street is affordable for many, making it a popular choice among drug users.

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How Much Fentanyl Can Cause Overdose?

The amount that can lead to an overdose varies from person to person, and a lethal dose of fentanyl can be just a pinch of the powder. Touching fentanyl with intact skin cannot cause an overdose, as it must enter the bloodstream to be deadly.
Sometimes individuals ingest fentanyl unknowingly, through laced weed and other illegal substances. It is hard to detect when fentanyl is cut into other drugs without you knowing. The side effects of a fentanyl overdose are feeling sleepy, sick, dizzy, and/or having difficulty breathing.

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Can you Die from Smelling Fentanyl?

Inhaling fentanyl increases the risk of overdosing, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. This is because the powder may touch the mucous membranes in the nose or mouth, entering the bloodstream, which can result in poisoning.

It is unlikely that this occurred in this incident since it took place outdoors. Furthermore, only prolonged exposure to the inhalation of fentanyl can be fatal.

According to a report done by medical toxicologists that references safety standards for industrial workers who manufacture fentanyl: “At the highest airborne concentration encountered by workers, an unprotected individual would require nearly 200 minutes of exposure to reach a dose of 100 mcg of fentanyl,” the report states. (100 mcg, or micrograms, is enough to have a therapeutic effect but not enough to cause an overdose).

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Did the Officer Overdose from Touching Fentanyl?

It is important to note that fentanyl cannot be absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream on its own since it needs moisture; simply touching fentanyl is not dangerous. For this reason, patients in clinical care are given fentanyl patches – they aid in absorption and can then relieve the pain.

“For the fentanyl patch to work, you have to put a lot of fentanyl in the patch. It has to be moist and it has to be in contact with the skin for a long time, in a special liquid,” said Dr. Andrew Stolbach, a physician at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. “Those aren’t the conditions that are going to occur when somebody is incidentally exposed or accidentally touches a fentanyl patch.”

Additionally, since the side effects of fentanyl overdose are largely subjective, it is possible that the police officer in the video was feeling dizzy and had difficulty breathing for an entirely different reason. It is suggested that the officer suffered from the nocebo effect (the opposite of the placebo effect, where one believes in a negative outcome and it then manifests itself as a result). The side effects of a fentanyl overdose are similar to those of a panic attack, further supporting the theory above.

Proof of fentanyl overdose can be found with a urine or blood test and the video did not include that, which questions the original fentanyl overdose conclusion altogether.

Dr. Susan Julius, MD, DABPM, DABFM, FASAM, CMRO, a doctor at Avenues Recovery, said, “It is impossible to overdose from smelling or touching fentanyl.” So can you get high from touching fentanyl? The answer would be no.

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Effects of Fentanyl Misuse

Like any opioid drug, fentanyl is often misused because when it enters the bloodstream, it causes euphoria and relaxation. However, misuse of the drug can cause extremely unpleasant side effects including:

  • drowsiness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • constricted pupils
  • slowed breathing
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • constipation
  • loss of appetite
  • sweating
  • overdose.

Fentanyl overdose causes the person to get very sleepy and sometimes even unconscious. The breathing becomes slow and shallow, and the heart rate slows down causing the pulse to become very weak. At this point, it is vital to administer a dose of naloxone and call for emergency services immediately.

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Fentanyl Treatment and Recovery

If you or your loved one are struggling with fentanyl misuse, please know that you are not alone. There is help that can heal in the long term and assist in getting your life back. Drug rehab centers are instrumental in dealing with addiction thoroughly through detox and inpatient or outpatient rehabs. Avenues Recovery is here to provide therapeutic discussions and one-on-one therapy, designed to inspire healing and a drug-free life. Contact Avenues Recovery today and join many who have successfully overcome addiction, regained control of their lives, and embraced a path toward lasting recovery. 

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