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Infant Fentanyl Syndrome

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It is widely known that women who abuse drugs or alcohol during pregnancy may be causing irreversible damage to the fetus they are carrying. Recent findings have discovered a pattern in babies who endured a pregnancy where the mother was addicted to fentanyl, and the results have been astonishing.

Ten babies whose mothers reported using fentanyl during pregnancy were all said to be born with similar distinct features. (All ten babies themselves also tested positive for fentanyl when born.) All ten babies tested negative for Smith Lemley Opitz syndrome, a genetic condition that has similar effects on babies.

Below are the features which presented in all ten babies:

  • Smaller heads
  • Clubbed, conjoined toes
  • Cleft palate
  • Short, broad thumbs
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Upturned noses
  • Undersized lower jaws
  • Single palmar crease

All about Fentanyl

Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid drug, is used in the medical arena as a painkiller and an anesthetic. Fentanyl is similar to morphine in that they both act as pain relievers, but dissimilar in that it is actually 50 to 100 times more potent. Fentanyl is also widely misused on the street, as it causes pleasurable immediate after-effects such as a euphoric ‘high,’ a sense of calm, or relief from debilitating pain. It can be taken via a pill/capsule, injection, transdermal patch, nasal sprays, or eye droppers.

Unfortunately, there are also adverse side effects when misusing fentanyl for a prolonged period, some of which are dangerous. Some of the adverse side effects of abusing fentanyl include drowsiness, confusion, nausea, constipation, breathing issues, sedation, and unconsciousness. Another unfortunate outcome of self-medicating or using fentanyl is overdose. Fentanyl overdose occurs when such a high dose is taken that breathing slows and ultimately stops, resulting in too little oxygen reaching the brain. This is also known as hypoxia, a dangerous condition that can lead to death.

Science and Research

The discovery was made by Eric Waldman, a genetic counselor at Nemours Children Health, examining a baby born with congenital deformities in August 2022. He remembered having seen the distinct features earlier the same year. Altogether, six babies with Infant Fentanyl Syndrome were identified at Nemours Children’s Health in Wilmington, Delaware.

As of today, there is no definite research that proves the connection between fentanyl and the syndrome that has been identified in all ten babies. The babies all tested positive for fentanyl, but since some of the mothers were using other illicit drugs, it’s difficult to pin fentanyl as the definite cause of the syndrome. Additionally, fentanyl can be laced with other illegal substances that the user is unaware that they are consuming at all, making the study more complex.

Early findings have hypothesized that fentanyl causes disruptions to cholesterol metabolism, similar to the way Smith Lemley Opitz syndrome is developed in babies during pregnancy. The next step in the research process would be to examine the effects of fentanyl and whether or not it can cause damage to cholesterol metabolism. Research will also have to uncover how much fentanyl the womb must be exposed to in order to cause Infant Fentanyl Syndrome, and why some babies who are exposed to fentanyl in the womb are born with these defects while others are not.

The Future of Children Born With Infant Fentanyl Syndrome

The ten children in the study have a long road ahead of them. Predictably, they will need intense physical and occupational therapy to help them function like normal children. Because their joints aren’t fully formed, they will have trouble walking and holding things, among other developmental and physical issues.

They currently have feeding difficulties, which will most likely necessitate a feeding tube as they grow. Communication (speaking) is another big hurdle these children will have to overcome. The children will also need corrective surgeries and other interventions to deal with the deformities, heal their respiratory issues, and deal with other issues due to the nature of this syndrome.

The Fentanyl Crisis

The problem of women using drugs during pregnancy is widespread and concerning. Most women know that consuming illicit substances while pregnant is harmful to the unborn baby, but only a tiny percentage of addicted women enter treatment. There are many issues caused by using drugs during pregnancy, like stillbirth, birth defects, and neonatal abstinence syndrome (where babies experience withdrawal symptoms at birth because their bodies have become dependent on the drug the mother was taking during pregnancy).

The opioid crisis has gone through waves that peaked at different points in recent history. The opioid overdose epidemic has gained alarming traction since 1999, with nearly 645,000 people overdosing on opioids from 1999- 2021. Fentanyl, in particular, rose in popularity in 2013, along with other potent synthetic opioids. The percentage of overdose deaths caused by synthetic opioids increased by 22% from 2020-2021, and almost 71,000 drug overdose deaths from synthetic opioids occurred in 2021 alone. 

The Dangers of Fentanyl

Abusing fentanyl during pregnancy can cause irreversible damage to the unborn baby; however, there are many other unfortunate, irreversible consequences of prolonged misuse, including:

  • Constipation
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Irregular or slow heartbeat

Those taking fentanyl medication prescribed by a doctor, or people playing around with fentanyl to relieve themselves of pain, are at risk of becoming tolerant to and dependent on fentanyl. Tolerance is defined by the person needing to take higher doses of the drug to feel the same effects as previously. Dependence can be identified when a person experiences withdrawal symptoms as the body adjusts to managing without the substance in the body.

People who have become dependent on fentanyl can quickly become addicted to the drug, a condition that causes cravings, harsh withdrawal effects, and compulsion to continue using the substance of choice, regardless of negative consequences. The problem with addiction- besides the negative impact it has on the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of the user and their family and friends- is that it’s almost impossible to quit fentanyl on your own.

Fentanyl Addiction Treatment

As with any addictive substance, professional intervention is needed to help people wean off fentanyl safely and stay sober for the long term. To minimize and manage withdrawal symptoms, a drug rehab facility, hospital, or other medical institution can help you taper off fentanyl gradually while monitoring the effects in what is known as drug detox treatment. Mental health professionals provide different forms of relief for unavoidable symptoms, such as medication, fluids, and management techniques.

The next step, once the person struggling with addiction has successfully flushed the substance out of the body and recovered from the withdrawal symptoms, is to pursue sobriety. This can be achieved outpatient in some cases but often necessitates inpatient care at a drug rehab facility.

At Avenues Recovery, we offer one-on-one and group therapies, holistic therapies, and other beneficial programs that utilize the most updated, modern techniques and most professional staff to help our patients achieve a drug-free life. If you are struggling with addiction, reach out to us today. Our talented and dedicated staff have helped thousands of people overcome their addictions, and they can help you too. Reach out today to start your journey.

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