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Identifying Fentanyl: Understanding Look, Smell & Taste

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Jan 11, 2024 • 6 cited sources

Fentanyl is an extremely powerful opioid that’s about 100 times more potent than morphine and is largely responsible for the most recent wave of the opioid overdose epidemic. Fentanyl is often mixed into street drugs, including heroin, cocaine, ecstasy (molly) and counterfeit pills like Xanax, Adderall, oxycodone and hydrocodone

You can’t spot fentanyl by sight, smell or taste. But you can buy fentanyl test strips that can help you spot drugs cut with this deadly opioid before you use them. These strips are affordable and easily accessible and take just a few minutes to test your drugs.

It’s never safe to buy street drugs, but opioid use disorder (OUD) can cause compulsive opioid misuse. Getting treatment for OUD could help you stop buying street drugs, which could eliminate your risk of a fentanyl overdose.

What Does Fentanyl Look Like?

Dealers make illicit 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 with other drugs. You can’t spot it with the naked eye, which increases the risk of a deadly overdose.

Rainbow Fentanyl

Unlike the white powder fentanyl that is frequently added to other drugs like heroin, rainbow fentanyl is pressed into colorful pills. These brightly colored pills are very dangerous considering how appealing they are to teens and young children.

Rainbow fentanyl comes in bright pills, powders, and blocks that look like sidewalk chalk, and can lead to life-threatening overdoses.

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. And even if someone is smoking a drug that has fentanyl in it, fentanyl smoke has no odor. The only way to detect fentanyl in your drugs is with a fentanyl testing strip.

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. Plus, fentanyl is so potent that even if you lick a small amount of it, you could still overdose. In fact, a fatal overdose of fentanyl is just 2mg of powder, enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.[1]

Common Signs of a Fentanyl Overdose

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. 

Deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl were responsible for more than 70,000 overdose deaths in 2021 alone.[2]

More than half of all opioid overdose deaths now involve synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and researchers say the substance is rapidly becoming a routine part of street drugs.[4] 

Signs of a fentanyl overdose may include:[1]

  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Blue-ish skin, fingernails or lips
  • Slowed or stopped breathing
  • Slowed or stopped heartbeat
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Stupor
  • Coma

If you suspect you or someone you know has overdosed, call 911 immediately.

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. You’ll get the results within minutes. 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, overdoses can still happen. Entering a Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) program can help you quit using substances and begin a life of recovery.

In an MAT program, doctors use medications 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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