One of the most common ways in which fentanyl is delivered to a patient is via a patch. Technically, the patch is what is called a transdermal delivery system for a medication like fentanyl. In recent months, fentanyl has captured a growing amount of media and public attention because of its role in the opioid epidemic in the United States, including in California. Because of fentanyl’s use for patients, and because of the opioid epidemic, understanding how a fentanyl patch works can be helpful.

Overview of Fentanyl

Before diving deep into how a fentanyl patch works, understanding how and why this medication is used lawfully is important. As mentioned a moment ago, fentanyl is an opioid drug. Fentanyl is a drug that is subject to abuse for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is 100-times stronger than heroin. 

In a medical setting, fentanyl is used to assist patients with severe, persistent pain. Examples of patients prescribed fentanyl to battle severe pain are individuals in the final stages of untreatable cancer and other terminal illnesses. These are patients for which palliative care has become the only realistic course. 

Fentanyl typically is not the painkiller of first choice. Rather, fentanyl is prescribed when other painkilling medications have failed to provide a patient with necessary relief. 

Fentanyl patches are a preferred method of delivering this medication to patients for a number of reasons. These include the ability to closely regulate dosage with a patch. In addition, a fentanyl patch permits an around the clock, consistent delivery of this pain medication to a patient. 

Design of a Fentanyl Patch

A look at the design of a fentanyl patch is the easier way to understand how this medication delivery system works. 

  • The first layer of a fentanyl patch is a silicon adhesive that is designed to attach directly to a patient’s skin.
  • The second layer of a patch is a membrane consisting of an ethylene base. This layer controls the rate of fentanyl delivery to a patient. 
  • The third layer contains the fentanyl. The third layer also comes complete with dipropylene glycol mixed with cellulose. It is the mixture of substances contained in the third layer that permits the fentanyl to be absorbed by a patient’s skin and into his or her system. 
  • The fourth and final layer is a protective backing made of foil. This layer, the farthest from the skin, guards against fentanyl leakage. It protects others from being exposed to the powerful medication. 

Most Common Side Effects of a Fentanyl Patch

As is the case with any medication, there can be side effects (even when used precisely as recommended). The most commonplace side effects associated with the fentanyl patch are:

  • Constipation
  • Sleepiness
  • Skin Rash and Irritation

Some patients never face these side effects. On the other hand, some patients experience them to varying degrees from mild to moderate to severe. 

Signs of Fentanyl Overdose 

Signs of a fentanyl overdose include:

  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Weak muscles
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Extreme sleepiness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Profoundly slowed heartbeat
  • Very low blood pressure
  • Dangerously slowed or stopped breathing
  • Bluish tint to nails and lips

If something goes awry with a fentanyl patch, like the device being damaged, an overdose can occur in a matter of minutes. An overdose can occur in virtually no time at all. 

Timeframe to Pain Relief

A fentanyl patch doesn’t provide immediate pain relief to a patient. Rather, a patient typically needs to be treated with a fentanyl patch for about 24 hours before its effects are realized. The drug must build up in a person’s skin for about 24 hours before it begins to more fully enter the system, providing pain relief.

Lifetime of a Single Fentanyl Patch

Typically, a fentanyl patch is designed to last for 72 hours. In other words, the patch must be “changed out” after three days and replaced. The replacement patch should be placed in a different location on a patient’s body. Ideally, a fentanyl patch is placed on a location with little hair.

Damaged Fentanyl Patch

If a fentanyl patch is damaged while wearing, it must be removed immediately. A damaged fentanyl patch can result in too much of the drug being delivered into a person’s body at one time, resulting in an overdose. In addition, if a patch is damaged, a third party can be exposed to the drug. This has the potential for causing an overdose for that other individual. 

Medical Care While Using a Fentanyl Patch

A patient using a fentanyl patch must be under the very direct care of his or her physician. Typically, a patient will be introduced to the fentanyl patch while in the hospital. With that said, the medication can be used on an outpatient basis, provided a patient is closely monitored by his or her doctor.