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Rainbow Fentanyl & the Rise of Candy-Colored Pills

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Oct 15, 2023 • 5 cited sources

As of August 2022, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has intercepted brightly colored fentanyl in 26 states.[1] This so-called rainbow fentanyl isn’t more powerful than white forms of the drug. But it could appeal to young people, which makes it very dangerous. 

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Fentanyl in any form can cause a fatal overdose.[2] And almost any drug you buy from a dealer could contain it. 

Understanding what an overdose looks like — and how you can treat it — could help you save a life. If someone takes rainbow fentanyl, your quick thinking could reverse the overdose.

What Does Rainbow Fentanyl Look Like?

All rainbow fentanyl products are brightly colored, but the product can be pressed into multiple formats. 

DEA officials have seized rainbow fentanyl in the following formats:[1]

  • Pills 
  • Powder
  • Blocks (like sidewalk chalk) 

Sometimes these products look like other types of drugs, such as prescription painkillers. But sometimes, they just look like candy. 

How Is Rainbow Fentanyl Different Than Regular Fentanyl?

DEA officials say rainbow fentanyl isn’t stronger than regular fentanyl (even though some dealers claim that it is).[1] But the colors and formats set this drug apart. 

The bright colors and chalk-like format of rainbow fentanyl could make this drug seem attractive to young drug users. And their curiosity could prove lethal. 

From 2019 to 2021, researchers say overdose deaths among people ages 14 to 18 increased, and 84% involved illicit fentanyl products.[2]

Young drug users could buy brightly colored pills because they seem harmless, fun or even safe. In reality, these products could contain a lethal dose of drugs. 

Is It Easy to Identify Rainbow Fentanyl?

It is not easy to identify any form of fentanyl. The drug is odorless, colorless and tasteless. It’s impossible to determine if the brightly colored product in your hand contains fentanyl without testing it.[3]

Dealers may hide the presence of rainbow fentanyl too. Some dealers disguise their fentanyl and trick their buyers into believing they’re buying much less potent painkillers (like oxycodone).[4] These buyers may not know they’ve purchased rainbow fentanyl until they overdose. 

Why Is Rainbow Fentanyl Dangerous?

Fentanyl is one of the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths. Every day, more than 150 people die from overdoses of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.[3]

At even tiny doses, fentanyl is powerful enough to cause death. This powerful central nervous system depressant can slow your breathing and heart so dramatically that your brain cells die. They don’t have the oxygen and nourishment they need to survive. 

While fentanyl is dangerous for anyone, it’s especially deadly for people with no opioid experience. 

Long-term opioid users can develop a tolerance for the drug. They can still overdose on fentanyl (and many of them do). But they may survive doses that could kill someone else. If someone who is opioid naïve takes the same dose, it is much more likely to trigger an overdose.

Candy-colored fentanyl tends to appeal to young people who may have no experience with opioids. Their first purchase from a dealer could be strong enough to kill them. 

What to Do if Someone Is Overdosing 

A fentanyl overdose is a life-threatening event. But few people recognize it or know what to do. 

Of adolescent deaths associated with synthetic drugs like fentanyl, two-thirds of victims had one or more people around them. Most of those bystanders didn’t do anything to help.[2]

The following signs indicate that someone is experiencing an opioid overdose:[3]

  • Pinpoint pupils 
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slow or absent breathing 
  • Choking sounds
  • Cold or clammy skin 
  • Discolored lips and fingernails 

If you use opioids or spend time with people who do, go to a pharmacy and buy naloxone spray. This life-saving medication is available without a prescription in most pharmacies and medical facilities. It’s also known by the brand name Narcan. 

Naloxone comes in a preloaded nasal spray with easy-to-follow instructions. Anyone can administer it to someone who is overdosing, and this quick action could immediately reverse the overdose and save the person’s life.

If someone is overdosing, follow those instructions and deliver a spray of naloxone. Then, call 911. Give the operator the following information:

  • Your location
  • The symptoms you see
  • What drugs you think the person took
  • How much naloxone you gave

If the person hasn’t awakened, you can give another naloxone dose within a few minutes. Stay on the phone with the 911 operator until help arrives. 

Naloxone is safe, even if you give it to someone who hasn’t taken an opioid. And you can’t give too much of it. Even if you aren’t completely sure if an opioid overdose occurred, administer it if the person is showing signs of an overdose. 

Keep naloxone with you, and you’ll be ready if someone needs your help at a party or gathering. 

Naloxone is a temporary step, and it will wear off.[5] Further medical assistance is always needed after you administer naloxone. Even if the person recovers, seek further medical care.

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. DEA warns of brightly colored fentanyl used to target young Americans. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Published August 30, 2022. Accessed August 18, 2023.
  2. Tanz LJ, Dinwiddie AT, Mattson CL, O’Donnell J, Davis NL. Drug Overdose Deaths Among Persons Aged 10–19 Years — United States, July 2019–December 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2022;71:1576–1582. DOI:
  3. Fentanyl facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published June 27, 2023. Accessed August 18, 2023. 
  4. Tarentino F.Trafficker: Quantities of “rainbow fentanyl” arrive in New York. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Published October 4, 2022. Accessed August 18, 2023. 
  5. 5 things to know about naloxone. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Published October 25, 2022. Accessed August 18, 2023. 

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