The fentanils (fentanyls) are a family of highly potent opioid analgesic drugs that have caused thousands of deaths since they appeared on the heroin market in California in the 1970s (Figure). 

A small number are widely used as medicines in anaesthesia, for pain relief, and the immobilisation of large animals. Due to their psychoactive effects, such as causing euphoria, they are also sold on the illicit drug market as replacements for heroin and other opioids.

Exposure to small amounts of fentanils can rapidly cause life-threatening respiratory depression (slowing down of breathing). Left untreated, this can be fatal. Timely administration of the antidote naloxone can rapidly reverse such poisoning.

While playing a small role in the overall drug market in Europe, there has been a large increase in the availability of fentanils in the past few years. This has been driven by globalisation which has allowed bulk production in China and online sales. There has also been a substantial increase in the number of reported deaths linked to their use.

Figure. The fentanils first appeared on the illicit drug market 40 years ago. This timeline shows some of the major events involving this group of highly potent opioids between 1979–2010.

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