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Medically Reviewed

The Difference Between Carfentanil and Fentanyl

- 5 sections

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Opioid abuse is widespread in the United States and contributes to over 75,000 overdose deaths annually. The majority of opioid overdose deaths in 2022 were attributed to fentanyl.[1]

Fentanyl is a potent narcotic pain reliever derived from morphine and used in medical settings. People may also use illicitly manufactured fentanyl recreationally, putting themselves at significant risk of severe complications and overdose.

Carfentanil is a dangerous fentanyl analog that was created to mimic the effects of fentanyl but is used as a tranquilizer for large animals, including elephants. It is more potent–and dangerous–than morphine or fentanyl and is lethal to humans in tiny amounts. Drug traffickers have begun to add carfentanil to other drugs, including heroin–with deadly results.

It’s essential to understand the similarities and differences between fentanyl and carfentanil and know how to get life-saving opioid abuse treatment.

What is Carfentanil?

The DEA has warned the public about drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, laced with a substance called carfentanil. Carfentanil is a narcotic analgesic drug derived from morphine–and is 10,000 times more powerful.[2] Carfentanil is so potent that it is not approved for human use. Veterinarians use carfentanil to sedate elephants and other large animals. They wear protective gear when handling carfentanil to avoid accidental inhalation or skin contact.

Extreme precautions around carfentanil are necessary. A minuscule amount of the drug–less than one milligram–can quickly kill someone. An amount smaller than a grain of sand can be lethal. The drug is so deadly that an organization called the Buffalo Field Campaign warns people against eating the meat of bison that have been sedated with carfentanil because of the risk of overdose.

When a person ingests carfentanil, the effects develop rapidly. Carfentanil binds to the brain’s opioid receptors and sets off a series of life-threatening effects. People who ingest carfentanil while using other drugs may suffer a lethal overdose without immediate medical intervention.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid used to relieve moderate to severe pain. Fentanyl is believed to be mostly safe when used under medical supervision but has the potential to lead to dependence and addiction.

Prescription fentanyl is available in several forms, including:

  • Lozenges
  • Tablets
  • Nasal sprays
  • Patches
  • Injectable liquids

Illicit fentanyl comes mostly in powder form.

Drug smugglers and traffickers sometimes add fentanyl to heroin and other street drugs or counterfeit prescription opioids. People who use these drugs are at risk of an accidental fentanyl overdose, which is often lethal.

Fentanyl effectively relieves pain but also causes feelings of euphoria, sedation, or relaxation. These pleasant effects may make people want to take fentanyl in higher doses, more frequently, or longer than recommended. People may become addicted to fentanyl, even under medical supervision. However, people who use it recreationally are at the greatest risk of addiction and life-threatening complications, including overdose.

The Dangers of Carfentanil and Fentanyl

Fentanyl is a potent, powerfully-addictive opioid. It is estimated to be 100 times stronger than morphine and can be deadly in small amounts.[3] The drug has known medical uses and is generally safe under strict supervision, but carries a high risk of addiction and overdose if used recreationally.

On the other hand, carfentanil is not approved for any human use and is deadly in tiny doses. When ingested accidentally, the drug binds to the brain’s opioid receptors and can quickly slow or stop a person’s breathing.

A carfentanil overdose can quickly cause death. If you or someone near you has symptoms of an overdose, you must seek immediate medical treatment. Some of the signs of carfentanil exposure include:

  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • Sudden drowsiness
  • Disorientation
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Clammy skin
  • Sedation

The effects of carfentanil ingestion are intense and quick. The DEA recommends administering Naloxone while waiting for emergency medical services to arrive.

Fentanyl vs. Carfentanil Abuse

Because carfentanil is simply too potent to use for a prolonged period and develop tolerance or dependence, it is impossible to develop carfentanil addiction.

However, people who use fentanyl–even under medical guidance–may develop tolerance and addiction to the drug. It’s essential to recognize the signs of fentanyl abuse and addiction and get the treatment you need to overcome these conditions.

Some signs of fentanyl abuse and addiction include:

  • Developing tolerance–needing more of the drug to get the same effect
  • Taking more Fentanyl longer, more frequently, or in higher doses than prescribed
  • Spending a lot of time and energy obtaining and using the drug
  • Facing legal or financial trouble because of your drug use
  • Isolating from friends and family
  • Neglecting responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you stop using fentanyl

Those who abuse fentanyl may also have physical signs of opiate abuse, including:

  • Constricted pupils
  • Red or flushed face
  • “Nodding out,” falling asleep, or losing consciousness
  • Drowsiness
  • Sluggish reaction time
  • Itching

Recognizing these signs of opioid addiction means that you must get professional treatment to overcome the condition and learn the skills you need to avoid relapse.

Get Help Now

Living with opioid addiction puts you at risk of life-threatening complications, including overdose. Take the first step toward the healthy, sober lifestyle you deserve. Contact the Carolina Center for Recovery specialists to learn about starting one of our comprehensive addiction treatment programs today.