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Fentanyl Test Strips: Helping Prevent Overdose

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Aug 14, 2023 • 11 cited sources

Your drug dealer may sell you a substance labeled heroin. But how do you know what’s really inside? Test strips allow you to check for fentanyl, which could help you prevent an overdose. 

Researchers say that in recent years about half of overdose deaths can be attributed to fentanyl.[1] People believe they’re buying a known, familiar substance. But their doses have been laced with fentanyl, which is much stronger than the substances they’re accustomed to.

Most fentanyl-related overdoses aren’t linked to prescriptions, experts say. Instead, people die because they take drugs contaminated with fentanyl, and they have no idea the drug is present.[2] Test strips could change that. 

Why Are Test Strips So Important?

Fentanyl is odorless, colorless and tasteless. You can’t examine your drug doses for fentanyl. And even a tiny amount (smaller than a penny) could be enough to cause a fatal overdose. 

Test strips give you knowledge about the drugs you buy. They could help you to stay safer while purchasing street drugs. Getting sober is a safer option in the long term. But until you’re ready to quit drugs for good, fentanyl test strips might be useful. 

Step-by-Step Fentanyl Test Strip Instructions 

Your test strips should come with detailed instructions, guiding you to use them and interpret the results. But most involve the following steps:[3]

  1. Prepare your sample. You can dissolve all of the drugs you plan to use in water, crush your drugs and place them in a small bag, or put at least 10 mg of drugs in a clean and dry container. 
  2. Add water to dry samples. If you’ve crushed some or all of your drugs, add about a half teaspoon of water to the sample. If you’re testing something sold as meth, MDMA or ecstasy, you may need to add a teaspoon for every 10 mg of drugs you’re testing. 
  3. Place the test strip in the water. Put the strip inside the sample and leave it there for 15 seconds. Then, take the strip out and place it on a flat surface for 2 minutes. 
  4. Read your results. One line far to the left typically means your drugs are contaminated with fentanyl. Two lines means fentanyl is probably not included in the sample you tested. A line right in the middle is inconclusive and suggests you need a new strip. 

Know that a negative test doesn’t indicate that your entire dose of drugs is safe. Fentanyl can be mixed unequally throughout your sample. Unless you dissolve your entire dose in water, you could get inaccurate results due to improper drug mixing.

A negative test also doesn’t mean everything you buy from your dealer is safe. You could buy a clean dose one day and a contaminated dose the next. Each dose must be tested to truly know if fentanyl is present. 

Where to Find Fentanyl Test Strips

Researchers say most fentanyl test strips cost about $1 apiece and are about 96% to 100% accurate in detecting fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.[4] But they can be hard to get in some locations. 

Many states, including Texas, consider test strips drug paraphernalia. Possessing them means admitting you use illicit drugs. You could get arrested for purchasing, using or storing them. Only 31 states have made them legal.[5]

Contact your county health department to ask about fentanyl test strips. Ask if they’re legal to use in your state, and ask if the county health department has free products available. Since fentanyl is responsible for widespread overdose deaths, many county health departments buy test strips in bulk and hand them out to people who need them.

If you’re not sure how to find your county health department, use this tool from the National Association of County and City Health Officials.[6]

How Safe Are Fentanyl Test Strips?

The products come with no side effects. You can sample drugs and take clean samples without worrying about contamination. Researchers say people using the strips reported changing their drug habits if they detected contamination.[7] Results like this show that they work. But there are drawbacks. 

Known risks associated with test strips include the following:[8]

  • Poor interpretation skills: Some people don’t read the results properly and take contaminated drugs. 
  • Extreme sensitivity: Test strips can detect fentanyl molecules so small that you may not notice a change if you took the contaminated dose. One experience like this could make you doubt the harm associated with fentanyl.
  • Low data: Test strips don’t include contamination percentages, and they can’t detect other drugs. 

Some experts say fentanyl is so widespread that everyone who buys heroin should expect contamination. Test strips could lead to a false sense of security, they say.[5]

The Importance of Fentanyl Test Strips in 2023

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin.[9] It’s commonly mixed with opioids like heroin, but it’s also included in non-opioid drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine. 

Fentanyl combinations can fluctuate from one batch to another, making safe drug misuse almost impossible.[10] One dose might not seem strong enough, and the next could spark a fatal overdose. It’s nearly impossible to titrate a safe dose since the drug can be lethal in even tiny quantities. 

When dealers add fentanyl, their drugs become markedly more addictive, creating high profits and a repeat customer base.[10] It’s this addictiveness, combined with low costs, that makes them add fentanyl to drugs like fake Xanax, Adderall and other non-opioid drugs. They want customers to come back. 

Dealers add fentanyl to opioid drugs because it’s easier to smuggle than many other substances. A large amount of heroin is relatively easy to spot, but a tiny amount of fentanyl can be hidden and brought into the country without detection. 

When fentanyl enters a community, deaths rise accordingly. For example, Kansas City has seen a 149% increase in fentanyl overdose deaths. And officials in that area saw a 301% increase in fentanyl pills seized between 2020 and 2021.[11]

Spotting contaminated drugs is one of the quickest and easiest ways to help people stay safe. And a positive test could be the prompt you need to stop using street drugs for good.

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

Sources
  1. Other Drugs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/deaths/other-drugs.html. November 2021. Accessed March 2023.
  2. Reported Law Enforcement Encounters Testing Positive for Fentanyl Increase Across U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/deaths/fentanyl-encounters/index.html. August 2021. Accessed March 2023.
  3. How to Test Your Drugs Using Fentanyl Test Strips. NYC Health. https://www.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/basas/fentanyl-test-strips-brochure.pdf. August 2021. Accessed March 2023.
  4. Fentanyl Test Strips. Legislative Analysis and Public Policy Association. https://www.nmhealth.org/publication/view/general/6756/. May 2021. Accessed March 2023.
  5. Fentanyl Test Strips Could Help Save Lives. In Many States, They're Still Illegal. Stat. https://www.statnews.com/2022/09/08/fentanyl-test-strips-could-help-save-lives-in-many-states-theyre-still-illegal/. September 2022. Accessed March 2023.
  6. Directory of Local Health Departments. National Association of County and City Health Officials. https://www.naccho.org/membership/lhd-directory. Accessed March 2023.
  7. Firsthand Accounts Indicate Fentanyl Test Strips Are Effective in Reducing Overdose Risk. Brown. https://www.brown.edu/news/2019-01-18/fentanyl. January 2019. Accessed March 2023.
  8. Fentanyl Test Strip Pilot. National Harm Reduction Coalition. https://harmreduction.org/issues/fentanyl/fentanyl-test-strip-pilot/. October 2020. Accessed March 2023.
  9. The Facts About Fentanyl. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/stopoverdose/fentanyl/pdf/Fentanyl_Fact_Sheet_508c.pdf. Accessed March 2023.
  10. If Fentanyl Is So Deadly, Why Do Drug Dealers Use It to Lace Illicit Drugs? ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/fentanyl-deadly-drug-dealers-lace-illicit-drugs/story?id=96827602. February 2023. Accessed March 2023.
  11. Increase in Deaths Linked to Increased Use of Fentanyl Being Mixed with Other Drugs. Jackson County Combat. https://www.jacksoncountycombat.com/801/Overdose-Deaths-Increasing. March 2022. Accessed March 2023.

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