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Carfentanil Lethal Potential: Can You Truly Overdose?

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Nov 24, 2023 • 6 cited sources

Yes, you can easily overdose on carfentanil, and this can be fatal.

While opioid misuse is inherently dangerous, carfentanil is uniquely potent. This drug is used to tranquilize large animals and can easily be fatal to humans even in very small doses.[1] 

Carfentanil exposure should generally be treated as a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately and administer naloxone (Narcan), if available. If the person’s breathing is dangerously slowed or stopped, begin CPR and follow the emergency operator’s instructions.

What Does a Carfentanil Overdose Look Like?

Carfentanil is an opioid. In some ways, it is similar to drugs like morphine or heroin, but it is far more potent than these more commonly misused drugs.[1] 

To put its strength into context, carfentanil is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times stronger than the already very dangerous opioid fentanyl.[1] Since it is primarily designed to tranquilize very large animals like elephants, it can easily cause a fatal overdose in humans. 

While it’s arguably worth thinking of carfentanil separately from the common opioids of misuse due to its extreme potency, an overdose on the drug is still fundamentally an opioid overdose. This is a potentially fatal type of drug overdose that is typically characterized by at least some of the following symptoms:[2-4]

Shallow or Stopped Breathing

Opioids weaken a person’s ability to breathe. They can make it so it is physically impossible for an individual to breathe in enough to support their body’s oxygen needs. This can then cause a cascade of potentially severe health problems if not quickly corrected. 

Slowed or Absent Pulse

Another very dangerous element of opioid overdose is how the drugs slow a user’s heart rate. Next to the brain, the heart may be the most important organ, as it pumps blood throughout the rest of the body, which carries oxygen and nutrients to the places that need them. 

Like with slowed breathing, a severely slowed or absent pulse means a person is going to experience a flow of severe health problems. This signifies a medical emergency.

Vomiting or Gurgling

A person overdosing on carfentanil or any other opioid may start to vomit. Sometimes, this may not be immediately obvious if the vomit doesn’t exit their mouth. Gurgling can indicate the person has or is vomiting and that it may be stuck in their throat, preventing them from breathing. 

Pale or Bluish Skin or Nails

As a result of not receiving enough oxygen, the body can change colors slightly, and these changes usually become apparent first in the extremities and around the lips. The result is typically a paling or bluing effect. This effect can sometimes be harder to see in individuals with darker skin, with the color change sometimes looking more like a graying or maroon tint. 

Confusion or Unresponsiveness

If an individual is overdosing on an opioid, they may start to become confused or completely unable to respond. They might also appear conscious but be unable to coherently talk. This can be a sign that the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen, which can begin to affect a person’s ability to think and act.[1] 

How to Treat a Carfentanil Overdose

The exact lethal dose of carfentanil isn’t known.[5] Because of how potent the drug is, it’s best to treat any exposure as a potential medical emergency. If a person is actively showing any of the symptoms noted above after using what you believe to be carfentanil (or any other drug), it is even more important to take the situation seriously and act swiftly.

If a person is overdosing on carfentanil or any other opioid, call 911 immediately. Be prepared to give them as much useful information as possible in a clear and concise manner. Alert the operator to the situation as you understand it and tell them your location. Answer any questions they have for you, and don’t hang up the phone until you are told you can safely do so.

If available, give the drug naloxone to the person who is overdosing. This is a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses and potentially save a life. If a person’s breathing has stopped or is very weak, then administer CPR. If you’re not trained in CPR, loudly and clearly ask those around you if anyone else is trained in CPR and alert them to the situation.[2]

Getting Opioid Abuse Treatment

Regular carfentanil use isn’t typically an issue. The drug is so potent that its use is often accidental or the result of unintentional exposure. Its use is very likely to lead to overdose.

While misusing opioids is inherently dangerous and can carry many health risks, misusing carfentanil is extremely dangerous compared to most other opioids due to its strength. If you’re considering using carfentanil despite this, it is likely that you have an opioid use disorder (OUD) and need professional help.

If you or someone you know cannot stop misusing opioids, Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) may be the answer. Medications like Suboxone are used to manage opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings, allowing you to focus on the work you’re doing in therapy.[6] In time, you can learn to manage underlying issues that contribute to your opioid misuse.

At Bicycle Health, we offer Suboxone as part of our MAT telehealth services. You can access the life-saving addiction treatment you need no matter where you live. You’ll meet with a doctor from home, using your smartphone, tablet or computer, and you’ll often be able to pick up a same-day prescription for Suboxone from your local pharmacy. 

Reach out to us today to learn if our services are right for you or your loved one.

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. Carfentanil: A dangerous new factor in the U.S. opioid crisis. Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed November 3, 2023.
  2. Opioid overdose. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published October 3, 2023. Accessed November 3, 2023.
  3. Save a life from prescription opioid overdose. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Published July 17, 2020. Accessed November 3, 2023.
  4. Lifesaving naloxone. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published April 21, 2023. Accessed November 3, 2023.
  5. DEA issues carfentanil warning to police and public. Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed February 2, 2022. Accessed November 3, 2023.
  6. Maglione MA, Raaen L, Chen C, et al. Effects of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder on functional Outcomes: A systematic review. Rand Health Quarterly. 2020;8(4):RR–2108-OSD.

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