Doctors say the pain medication, which is often administered through a patch on the skin, is more potent than morphine and oxycodone and is prescribed for chronic, around-the-clock pain. It's been associated with a handful of area deaths in recent years, although authorities say heroin is more common because it's easier to obtain, HTR Media reported.
Fentanyl is "probably the most dangerous of all prescription medications out there," said Lt. Dave Remiker, who's part of the Manitowoc County Metro Drug Unit.
A 39-year-old Manitowoc man who died in February had three times the therapeutic range of fentanyl in his system. Another man who had chewed a fentanyl patch was found dead in an apartment in 2010.
People who abuse fentanyl can lose consciousness and possibly die, said Dr. Charles Szyman, who specializes in pain management at the Holy Family Memorial Pain Clinic in Manitowoc.
Fentanyl comes in patch and pill form, but the patch is generally abused more often because it has a higher dosage designed to be time-released over 72 hours. Some abusers cut the patch open, remove the liquid gel and ingest it all immediately, Szyman said.
"So they bypass the time-release intent of the patch, which a lot of times can be deadly," he said.
The drug can also be lethal when mixed with other drugs. Because some hard-core drug users have built up a tolerance they sometimes combine it with heroin and oxycodone, which is extremely dangerous, Remiker said.
"It's suicide, literally," he said.
Clinics have taken steps to prevent abuse by imposing tighter restrictions on fentanyl prescriptions, Szyman said. He added that while fentanyl is dangerous, other drugs of abuse are still a greater concern.
"While there still is going to be abuse of fentanyl, obviously, the population I'm seeing is driven to heroin because it's easier to obtain," Szyman said.