Causes, Nature and Toxicology of Fentanyl-Associated Deaths: A Systematic Review of Deaths Reported in Peer-Reviewed Literature
Received 4 September 2020
Accepted for publication 12 November 2020
Published 7 December 2020 Volume 2020:13 Pages 3281—3294
Checked for plagiarism Yes
Review by Single anonymous peer review
Peer reviewer comments 2
Editor who approved publication: Dr Michael Schatman
Ejaz Cheema,1 Khalil McGuinness,1 Muhammad Abdul Hadi,1 Vibhu Paudyal,1 Mohammed Hassan Elnaem,2 Abdullah A Alhifany,3 Mahmoud E Elrggal,3 Abdullah Al Hamid1
1School of Pharmacy, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK; 2Department of Pharmacy Practice, Faculty of Pharmacy, International Islamic University, Kuantan, Malaysia; 3Department of Clinical Pharmacy, College of Pharmacy, Umm Al-Qura University, Makkah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Correspondence: Ejaz Cheema
School of Pharmacy, University of Birmingham, Room 356, Robert Aitken Building, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK
Email [email protected]
Purpose: Fentanyl poisoning has been widely reported, yet there is a lack of systematic evaluation of the nature and toxicology of associated deaths in the published literature. This article aims to systematically review the nature, causes, routes of administration and toxicology of fentanyl-associated deaths using case studies and case series in peer-reviewed published literature.
Methods: Four electronic databases including Embase, Medline (via Ovid), Scopus and Google Scholar were searched from inception until October 2019 to identify the studies reporting fentanyl related deaths. Two independent reviewers screened and selected the titles and then evaluated the full texts. Only case studies and case series were included. A structured data extraction tool was used to extract data on the number of deaths, routes of administration, concomitant drug use and toxicological data. The Joanna Briggs Institute quality assessment tool was used to evaluate the quality of included studies. Data were synthesized narratively.
Results: Of 1251 articles identified during initial search, 8 case reports and 9 case series met the inclusion criteria. A total of 1969 deaths were reported in the included studies. Deaths were concentrated in the north American region (n = 1946) and the Nordic region (n = 22). Reported causes of death included fentanyl overdose (n = 321, 56.4%), mixed drug toxicity (n = 196, 34.5%), natural (n = 28, 4.9%), other drug toxicity (n = 10, 1.8%), fentanyl and ethanol intoxication (n = 8, 1.4%), incidental (n = 5, < 1%) and aspiration (n = 1). Most common routes of use were intravenous (70.5%) and transdermal routes (23.0%). Deaths came swiftly via the intravenous route. Mean level of blood fentanyl amongst all reported deaths was 0.024 μg/mL.
Conclusion: Literature related to fentanyl-associated deaths predominantly come from North America. Deaths are comparatively lower or not reported in peer-reviewed publications from the rest of the world. Abuse through intravenous administration, mixed drug toxicities and self-treatment of breakthrough pain are mainly responsible for majority of the reported deaths.
Keywords: fentanyl, death, nature, cause, toxicology
Fentanyl is classified as a schedule 2 controlled drug in the UK and is prescribed for chronic intractable pain.1 It is a synthetic opioid analgesic and is 50–100 times more potent than its counterpart morphine.2 This high potency is attributed to its lipophilicity which makes it readily cross the blood brain barrier.3 Fentanyl has a similar toxicological profile as other opioid analgesics and is associated with side effects including respiratory depression, anxiolysis, euphoria, drowsiness, constipation, nausea and cough suppression.1 Orthostatic hypotension, urinary urgency or retention, postural syncope and chest wall rigidity especially with the intravenous usage are also common.4
The opioid crisis in North America has been well recognised and fentanyl remains a key contributor.5 Cheaper production costs, greater potency and improved side effect profile often leads to fentanyl being favoured over its counterpart morphine. However, prescribing practices are often reported to be sub-optimal.6 In a Canadian study, approximately three in four fentanyl initiations were deemed to be unsafe due to lack of prior opioid exposure.6 In 2017 alone, it was estimated that there were 70,000 opiate related deaths in the US.7,8 Most cases of fentanyl-associated harm, overdose, and death in the US were reported to be related to the illicitly-manufactured fentanyl (IMF).9 According to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS) reports, there were 4585 confiscations of fentanyl in the year 2014.10 This data suggests that the rapid increase in fentanyl-associated deaths could be attributed to the increased availability of illegally made, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl and not prescribed fentanyl.9 This has also given rise to the use of novel opioid derivatives that had emerged in order to circumvent the regulations surrounding novel synthetic opioids (NSOs) such as morphine, heroine and fentanyl.11
Since their emergence, NSOs have been associated with severe harm including death.11 The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported an increase in death associated with opioids (including NSOs) from 9945 deaths in 2016 to 20,145 deaths in 2017.5 The situation is understood to be similarly concerning in the UK and Europe, however there is a concern in regards to timely availability of toxicological data.12 Previous systematic reviews on opioids focused on traditional opioids’ toxicities and their related mortalities;13–16 however, none of these reviews highlighted NSOs. This is not surprising as NSOs have only risen to prominence in recent years.11 Therefore, the present research is imperative as fentanyl contributes to the newest wave of opioid related casualties that is contributing to the larger problem of the opioid epidemic. Whilst there are legal and professional efforts required into combatting this problem, there is a need to identify products implicated, routes of use and toxicological profile in relation to fentanyl-associated deaths. The aim of this study is to systematically review the nature and toxicology of fentanyl-associated deaths using case studies and case series as reported in peer-reviewed published literature.
This study has been reported based on PRISMA guideline for reporting systematic reviews and meta-analysis. The review was registered on PROSPERO (CRD42020171448).
Data Sources and Searches
Three major online medical databases (Embase, Medline via Ovid and Scopus) and Google Scholar were searched from inception until October 2019. A simple text-based search strategy was used. Search words used were “fentanyl”, “deaths” and “case studies” and their synonyms. Reference lists of the included articles were also considered in order to ensure no relevant case studies or case series were missed.
Retrieved articles were imported into RefWorks® where initial screening was carried out. Titles and abstracts were screened against inclusion/exclusion criteria after deduplication. Articles were included if they were case studies and case series that reported deaths of adults (16 years and above) related to fentanyl/NSOs and published in the English language. Articles focusing on the analogues and solely on fentanyl laced products were excluded.
Data Extraction and Quality Assessment
A structured data extraction form was developed and piloted with two included papers and finalised within the research team (see Table 1). In addition to the demographic details of the paper, data on cause of death, dose, and route(s) of administration were extracted by two reviewers independently. The Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) validated quality assessment tool for case studies and case series was used to assess the quality of included studies. Two authors independently assessed the quality of included studies using the JBI tool.17 Discrepancies were resolved through discussions and a third reviewer was consulted to resolve disagreements.
Table 1 Data Extraction of Included Case Studies and Case Series
Data Synthesis and Analysis
Duplicate, independent extraction of data was undertaken by two reviewers. Where discrepancies occurred, a third reviewer was consulted for a final decision. Owing to the heterogeneity between the included studies in terms of different study designs and outcomes assessed, narrative synthesis was conducted. The data was presented according to the Synthesis Without Meta-analysis (SWiM) guideline18 and recommendations in the 2019 Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions where applicable.19 The narrative synthesis of the collected data was undertaken considering the geographical distribution, causes, nature, and toxicology of fentanyl-associated deaths. All data in the narrative synthesis was presented in tables of frequencies and percentages except for the toxicology data that was be presented as mean and range values.
A total of 1226 records were screened of which 17 studies were included (Figure 1).20–36 Of the 17 included articles, eight were case reports and nine were case series (see Table 1). The quality of reporting of included case studies was generally good. Demographic characteristics, patient history, clinical presentation, adverse events and take away lessons were clearly provided in most articles. Patient history, however, was either unclear or not reported in only three (37.5%) of eight articles. The quality of case series was variable with a lack of clear inclusion criteria and analyses plans (Tables 2 and 3).
Table 2 Quality Assessment of Included Case Studies
Table 3 Quality Assessment of Included Case Series
Figure 1 PRISMA flow diagram.Note: PRISMA figure adapted from Liberati A, Altman D, Tetzlaff J, et al. The PRISMA statement for reporting systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies that evaluate health care interventions: explanation and elaboration. Journal of clinical epidemiology. 2009;62(10). Creative Commons.37
A total of 1969 deaths were reported in included studies. Most deaths occurred in North America with United States reporting the highest number of deaths (n= 1738), followed by Canada (n=112) and Mexico (n=96). Outside North America, deaths were reported in Western Europe including Germany (n=11) and Nordic regions including Sweden (n=9) and Norway (n=9) (Table 1). Recent cases were identified from Far East Asia, Japan (n=1). The study conducted by Nara et al, was the first forensic autopsy report to be undertaken in Japan.34 Where ethnicity was reported, most of the deaths were reported among whites 1024 (56.1%) followed by blacks 719 (39.38%) and Hispanics 77 (4.22%). The majority of the patients who were reported dead were males 1456 (75.83%).
Routes of Administration
The route of administration of fentanyl was reported in 645 cases of deaths. The most common route of administration was intravenous (n = 455, 70.5%), followed by application of transdermal fentanyl patches (n = 148, n = 23.0%). Other less common routes of administration reported were oral/transmucosal (n = 29, 4.5%), oral and transdermal usage simultaneously (n = 6, <1%), ingestion (n = 4 <1%), transdermal and intravenous route simultaneously (n = 2, <1%) and inhalation (n = 1, <1%).
Cause of Deaths
Causes of deaths were not reported for all the deaths reported in included studies. Reported causes of death were: fentanyl overdose (n = 321, 56.4%), mixed drug toxicity (n = 196, 34.5%), natural (n = 28, 4.9%), other drug toxicity (n = 10, 1.8%), fentanyl and ethanol intoxication (n = 8, 1.4%), incidental (n = 5, <1%), and aspiration (n = 1). Among mixed drug toxicities, the most common concomitant drugs were other opioid type drugs, cocaine, benzodiazepines, sedating antihistamines and a wide array of antidepressants (Table 4). Diphenhydramine was the most common sedating antihistamine detected in those who died due to mixed drug toxicities. Among the drugs commonly abused together with fentanyl, there were a total of 28 drugs that had the potential for serotonin syndrome. For the purpose of this research, fentanyl and alcohol mixed toxicity were considered separately to mixed drug toxicity. Other uncommon causes of death included natural deaths, where fentanyl was detected by toxicology, but the patient died of natural causes. Incidental deaths, where fentanyl was detected by toxicology, but the patient died via accidents or injuries such as hanging or gunshot wounds. Some anomalous causes of death were also reported. A case study related to a patient chewing on a transdermal patch to obtain drug via a transmucosal route.21 Whilst chewing the patch, the fentanyl patch fell into his throat and the patient lacked capacity to react due to the sedative effect of the drug. Subsequently, the patient died of asphyxiation. Whilst this cause of death is not readily associated with any dosage forms of fentanyl, the events leading to the patient’s death were directly caused by the drug.
Table 4 Drugs Suspected in Fentanyl-Associated Deaths Classified as a Mixed Drug Toxicity
Nature of Deaths
Given the data reported in the included studies, the precise nature of fentanyl-associated deaths remained unclear. It was also very difficult to ascertain whether patients were prescribed fentanyl legitimately, as the statistics were not reported in most of the included studies. One study conducted by Jumbelic (2010) reported that five out of eight (62.5%) of fentanyl-associated death cases included in this case study were legitimately prescribed.27
Blood toxicology reports of patients with fentanyl-associated patient deaths were reported in only 12 studies. There was a great variation in the concentration of fentanyl reported in blood toxicological reports. The mean fentanyl concentration in blood from all deaths (reported in 12 of 17 articles) was 0.024 µg/mL (range 0.0002–0.38 µg/mL).
Some evidence suggested that the variability in fentanyl blood concentrations was dependent on the site where blood was drawn.32,34 Nara et al34 reported the case of a lady who died of a fentanyl overdose via the transdermal route of administration. The fentanyl concentration at the femoral and cardiac sites were 0.051 µg/mL and 0.033 µg/mL respectively. When examining toxicology post-mortem, researchers in the study took blood samples from different locations. These locations included femoral, cardiac, subclavian and iliac arteries (Table 5).
Table 5 Data Extraction of Toxicology from Included Case Studies
Deaths reported due to mixed drug toxicity had the highest mean fentanyl concentration at 0.034 µg/mL (range 0.0027–0.12 µg/mL) followed by fentanyl intoxication and fentanyl plus ethanol toxicity with 0.017µg/mL (range 0.002–0.38 µg/mL) and 0.015µg/mL (range 0.0064–0.037 µg/mL) respectively. The greatest concentration observed was from intravenous injection at 0.383 µg/mL. Martin et al reported that this death was as a result of an individual injecting the contents of five transdermal patches.32 This reflected the extremely high mortality of injecting the contents of patches. A transmucosal route resulted in the lowest fentanyl concentration with a mean (range) of 0.0086 µg/mL. Those who had ingested fentanyl had the highest mean (range) blood concentration post-mortem with 0.028 (0.007–0.097) µg/mL. This was not anticipated given that fentanyl passing through the stomach will be greatly metabolised. Transdermal administration resulted in mean (range) concentration of 0.019 (0.0008–0.097) µg/mL. The mean (range) concentration of fentanyl without the use of other drugs was 0.025 0.005–0.027) µg/mL. When concomitant drugs were present, the mean (range) blood concentration were 0.017 (0.005–0.051) µg/mL. As aforementioned, this could have resulted from an increased tolerance to the opioid from chronic drug abuse. The full details of this case are however unknown. Of the 17 articles included in this systematic review only one study reported non measurable fentanyl concentration in blood.24 Three studies reported norfentanyl concentrations.21,25,34 Norfentanyl is one of the main metabolites of fentanyl that is produced by oxidative N-dealkylation.34
This is the first study to systematically review case studies and case series related to the deaths attributed to fentanyl. This report has reinforced the dangers of administering fentanyl via all routes especially IV and transdermal routes. Multiple fentanyl-associated deaths were recorded in not only North America but also in Europe and Asia. The majority of the deaths included in this review were attributed to intravenous route. An intravenous route provides the quickest onset of action completely bypassing the blood brain barrier. Jansen pharmaceuticals has also stated in its product literature that fentanyl is more likely to cause chest wall rigidity when used intravenously.4 This fact could have contributed to the respiratory depression and subsequent death of victims.
The transmucosal route was associated with the lowest fentanyl concentration, however this is not a representative result as firstly, there was only a single death via the transmucosal route that included toxicological data. Secondly, the reported patient died of aspiration thus it is unlikely that the value observed had lethal effects. It would be expected that the transmucosal route would result in greater concentration than observed and produce greater blood concentration than the orally ingested route.37
There seemed to be no clear correlation between the post-mortem blood samples of fentanyl and routes of administration or cause of death. Therefore, many factors must be considered when researching toxicology including route of administration, concomitant drug use and opioid naivety. Using an intravenous route of administration is anticipated to produce lesser blood fentanyl concentrations given its high lipophilicity and uptake into tissues. Transdermal administration would be expected to produce the greatest blood fentanyl concentrations due to its prolonged release mechanism.32
A common theme that recurred in transdermal associated deaths was the patient’s lack of understanding of their prescription medication. Patients using multiple fentanyl patches to treat their breakthrough pain led to several deaths. Explicit education is needed for those patients to prevent such deaths occurring in the future. Furthermore, patients who died because of fentanyl transdermal patches often found ways to extract the active pharmaceutical ingredient from transdermal patches to inject intravenously. Fentanyl patches (Duragesic®) follow a reservoir drug delivery design in which the drug is held within the centre of the patch encased by a backing layer and rate controlling membrane which is in contact with the skin.38 By disturbing the integrity of the rate controlling membrane and/or backing layer, drug from the reservoir can be extracted.
Simultaneous drug usage was extremely common in the case studies and case series reviewed.
The most common concomitant drug classes reported were other opiates (n = 734), cocaine (n = 295), benzodiazepines (n = 285) and antidepressants (n = 122). Whilst this was not investigated in this review, the possibility of death caused by serotonin syndrome cannot be ignored. The risk of serotonin syndrome is comparatively small with intravenous fentanyl as this opioid has a small half-life however when used as a prolonged release transdermal formulation the risk is greatly increased. The study has also implied that the most at-risk patients are those with histories of chronic drug abuse and those where polypharmacy is common. Antidepressants are also unsurprisingly common as polypharmacy is rife in those with severe pain and/or cancer, for which fentanyl is usually prescribed. The effects of using different opioids alongside fentanyl will inevitably be additive and enhance the central nervous system (CNS) effects of the drugs. In a similar way, the administration of antidepressants, drugs which are known to cause anticholinergic blockade, will also add to the sedating and CNS depressive effects of fentanyl.
This study has some limitations. The quality of case studies and case series included in this article are variable and results should therefore be interpreted with caution. The opioid epidemic is a large-scale problem involving several synthetic opioids and only one of which was investigated here. Also, fentanyl itself has many different analogues of varying potency which were not investigated in this review. The study population of this review was only restricted to the adult population. Children have been reported to have died via fentanyl exposure in some studies.39,40 Studies that were published in non-indexed journals and unpublished reports were also not included in this review which could have proved valuable sources of information.
Implications for Practice and Research
This report highlights the need to carefully review the prescribing of fentanyl, particularly in those areas where there are extremely high instances of death, eg, in North America. It should be ensured that the drug is only prescribed for those who absolutely require it and in accordance with professional guidelines. All healthcare professionals must provide explicit and clear education to those taking fentanyl with regards to how the drug should be used appropriately and the consequences of overuse, misuse and diversion. Prescribers may consider providing naloxone to said patients as symptoms may take hold too quickly for emergency services to arrive. This could potentially save lives. A patient’s tolerance to opioids also affects the threshold to which fentanyl becomes toxic. Those patients who do not receive chronic opioid treatment are said to be opioid naïve and are anticipated to have lower blood fentanyl levels upon death.
This review has established that chronic drug addicts have greater tendencies to misuse the drug. These patients need to be informed about the signs and symptoms of respiratory depression and chest wall rigidity. This will enable them to respond to these signs in a rapid manner, alerting emergency services and preventing loss of life. There is a need to improve access to preventative services including the drug and alcohol services and provision of naloxone to the vulnerable patient populations such as homeless populations who have high prevalence of opioid misuse and also demonstrate dual diagnoses of opioid misuse and severe mental health.41–43 Key stakeholders should focus on raising public awareness of fentanyl and its dangers when misused.
Deaths due to fentanyl as reported in the published studies is concentrated in North America. Deaths are comparatively lower or not reported in peer-reviewed publications in the rest of the world. Abuse through intravenous administration, mixed drug toxicities including other opiates and antidepressants, and self-treatment of breakthrough pain are mainly responsible for most of the deaths. There is a need for wider regulatory measures, education of healthcare professionals and patients in combating the problem.
This review did not require ethical approval.
All authors made substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; took part in drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; agreed to submit to the current journal; gave final approval of the version to be published; and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.
This work received no funding from any public or private organisation.
The authors have no conflicts of interests to declare.
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