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Identifying Fentanyl: Understanding Look, Smell & Taste

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated May 13, 2023 • 6 cited sources
fentanyl pills in rx bottle

Fentanyl is a very powerful opioid mixed into all sorts of street drugs, including heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. You can’t spot fentanyl by sight, smell or taste. But you can buy test strips that can help you spot contaminated drugs before you take them. 

It’s never safe to buy street drugs, but an ongoing opioid use disorder (OUD) can make it seem like you have no choice. Getting treatment for OUD could help you stop buying street drugs for good, and this could eliminate your risk of a fentanyl overdose.

Understanding Fentanyl

Fentanyl is an opioid, just like oxycodone and morphine. But it’s incredibly strong — about 100 times more potent than morphine.[1] Fentanyl is also very easy to make, and dealers often sprinkle it into their other products to make them stronger and to cut costs. 

People with OUD are generally aware of how much to take in each dose. Someone may know that they tolerate two OxyContin well, but taking three makes them too sedated. When people buy drugs, they apply what they know about their body to manage how intoxicated they become. Fentanyl complicates all of this math.

The next dose you take could be much stronger than you’re accustomed to, and it could trigger an overdose. Deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl were responsible for more than 70,000 overdose deaths in 2021 alone.[2]

What Does Fentanyl Look Like?

Dealers make fentanyl in powder form, but they mix it into many different forms, including the following:[1]

  • Powders
  • Nasal sprays 
  • Pills 

Fentanyl doesn’t stand out when it’s mixed into other drugs. You can’t spot it with the naked eye.

What Does Fentanyl Smell Like?

Fentanyl is odorless, so you can’t smell it.[3] The other drugs it’s mixed with are also odorless, so it’s impossible to tell if you’ve purchased a contaminated dose. Your nose will not help you to stay safe.

What Does Fentanyl Taste Like?

Fentanyl has no taste, and it’s also mixed with other tasteless substances.[3] You can’t tell if you’re dealing with a contaminated dose of drugs by licking the substance. 

The Dangers of Overdosing From Fentanyl

Of all opioids, fentanyl is one of the strongest. Since it’s so powerful and found in all kinds of drugs, it’s responsible for many overdose deaths. 

More than half of all opioid overdose deaths involve fentanyl, and researchers say the substance is rapidly becoming a routine part of street drugs.[4] People with a history of OUD are accustomed to taking opioids, so they may have a mild amount of protection. But people who have never used opioids are at an even higher risk of overdose deaths. Their bodies just aren’t accustomed to opioids at all. 

How Do Fentanyl Test Strips Help?

Many people who use street drugs are aware that fentanyl could contaminate the next substance they buy. In one study of 149 people, 121 knew about fentanyl or had been exposed to it within the last year.[5] 

Since you can’t see, smell or taste the drug, it’s very hard to stay safe. Test strips can help.

Fentanyl test strips are small, inexpensive and convenient. They can detect fentanyl in all sorts of drugs, including the following:[6]

  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Heroin
  • Pills
  • Powders
  • Injectables

Place a tiny bit of your drug in a test tube, add water and then the strip. If it’s contaminated, do not take the drug. 

But fentanyl is not always evenly distributed throughout a batch of drugs. There’s always a chance that the small portion you test doesn’t have fentanyl, but it’s present elsewhere in the batch.

Getting Help for Opioid Use Disorder 

While test strips can help you ensure you don’t take a substance contaminated with fentanyl, it’s not the best way to stay safe. Entering a Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) program is a better option.

In an MAT program, doctors use therapies like Suboxone to correct chemical imbalances deep inside your brain, caused by opioid misuse. MAT helps you think clearly, avoid drug cravings and get sober without feeling crippling withdrawal symptoms. Counseling could help you build a new life too. 

If you’re struggling with OUD, talk to your doctor to see if MAT is right for you.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Facts About Fentanyl. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. April 2021. Accessed March 2023.
  2. Drug Overdose Death Rates. National Institute on Drug Abuse. February 2023. Accessed March 2023.
  3. Fentanyl Warning. Public Health, Seattle and King County. Accessed March 2023.
  4. Other Drugs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. November 2021. Accessed March 2023.
  5. Exposure to Fentanyl-Contaminated Heroin and Overdose Risk Among Illicit Opioid Users in Rhode Island: A Mixed Methods Study. International Journal of Drug Policy. August 2018. Accessed March 2023.
  6. Fentanyl Test Strips: A Harm-Reduction Strategy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 2022. Accessed March 2023.
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