Last updated: June 5, 2023
A powerful narcotic pain reliever, the length of time that fentanyl remains detectable in the system depends on the type of drug test used. Doctors commonly prescribe fentanyl to treat the chronic pain experienced by cancer patients. Normally, it’s administered by means of a patch applied to the skin. The drug distributes itself throughout the central nervous system providing long-term pain relief.
Sadly, though, those in the drug culture have gotten their hands on it too. Moreover, the street use of the drug is proving to be extremely deadly. In fact, now that it’s on our radar, the CDC reports that many of the deaths here in the United States can be attributed to illegally made fentanyl rather than the pharmaceutical variety.
Whether it’s prescribed or used illegally, if an employer tests for fentanyl and it’s in an employee’s system, there will be consequences.
The opioid epidemic took a turn for the worse when fentanyl jumped into the scene. It’s 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine and as much as 50 times stronger than heroin. An extremely intoxicating opioid, drug dealers often use it as a “filler” to intensify the high of their product. Their thinking, of course, is that users are always seeking the “ultimate” high making the odds of repeat business good.
The drug produces intense feelings of euphoria, albeit they’re short-lived. Unfortunately, this is one of the grave dangers that this drug presents. Drug traffickers often add fentanyl to heroin or methamphetamine unbeknownst to the user. They’re apt to use the drug again too soon hoping to prolong their high and overdose.
Signs and symptoms of use
The risk of overdose is heightened by the dramatic effect this powerful narcotic has on both heart and respiratory functions. It slows them down measurably and if the user nods off, they’re at risk of never waking up. Furthermore, fentanyl should never be used in conjunction with alcohol. It measurably increases the risk of overdose.
In addition to labored breathing and drowsiness, the signs of use are extensive and include:
- Difficulty walking
- Muscle stiffness
- Slurred speech
- Nausea and vomiting
- Itching or scratching
- Pinpoint pupils
Moreover, users who want to stop using the drug are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms because it’s highly addictive. Our bodies quickly develop a physical dependence on it. In the long run, the severity of the symptoms depends on the length and intensity of use.
Withdrawal symptoms consist of any or all of the following:
- Feeling depressed
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble sleeping
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
- Muscle pain
Employers should be aware that fentanyl isn’t detected through the standard “opiate” panel on a drug test. You need to add it as a separate test panel. Still, as mentioned above, the length of time that it can be detected varies depending on whether it’s a urine, hair, or mouth swab test.
The reason being that its structure is different enough from morphine to keep it from reacting to the commonly used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) test. Detection requires using the liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) test.
Your lab representative can easily have it added to your employee testing panel. Before taking that step though, make sure you’ve properly added it to your drug testing policies and procedures. That includes notifying all employees of the change!
Urine drug tests
The urine drug test is the most commonly used employee drug testing method. At the moment, it’s the only approved testing method for the DOT (Department of Transportation), however, that may change before much longer.
The DOT submitted a request to the Department of Health and Human Services to change to the hair follicle drug test several years ago now. It’s still making its way through the chain-of-command. And, although the HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) presented the guidelines to follow if a federal entity chooses to use an oral fluid—commonly known as the mouth swab—test in November 2019, the DOT has made no move to incorporate it as an alternative drug testing method to date.
Urine tests identify fentanyl about eight hours after using the drug. It can be detected for up to 24 hours after using the drug.
Hair follicle drug tests
Like all other drugs, fentanyl is identified for a three month period when using the hair follicle test. That’s due to the fact that the drug metabolites stored in the hair follicle exit the body by growing out into the hair shaft. This leaves a permanent record of drug use.
If technicians are unable to use head hair, body hair can be used. Because it grows at a different rate than the hair on our heads, body hair detects up to a year of prior drug use.
Oral fluid drug tests
The advancing technology in oral fluid testing is making these tests more popular for detecting recent drug use. Although it’s not possible to determine if a user is currently impaired or if the swab is detecting drug metabolites yet, most drugs are detected within minutes after use.
Fentanyl is detected by a mouth swab test for up to seventy-two hours.
Blood drug tests
Although fentanyl is recognized in the bloodstream for up to 12 hours, employers rarely use this method of testing unless it’s a post-accident situation. They’re expensive and considered very invasive. Furthermore, skilled medical staff must administer the test.
Breaking down the varied detection period
We’ve mentioned that fentanyl is detected by each drug testing method for an “up to” amount of time. There are several factors that cause a varied period of detection.
- Body mass
- Frequency of use
- Food intake
Testing for fentanyl
In light of the continuing opioid epidemic plaguing our nation and the fact that fentanyl is growing in popularity among drug users in recent years, you may decide to add it to your drug testing panel.
It’s a well-known fact that drugs in the workplace are a huge safety concern for everyone. The drug user’s more likely to be involved in a serious accident. Moreover, they put everyone around them at risk as well.
That’s not a risk an employer should have to take. Adding fentanyl to your company drug testing panel may be nothing more than a “better safe than sorry” measure.
But, on the other hand—
Better safe than sorry.