By Samir Kadri

Last updated: 19 October 2023 & medically reviewed by Dr. Jenni Jacobsen

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid drug that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat severe pain. It is one of the strongest analgesic opioids there is, roughly 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Key takeaways:

  • The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid overdose epidemic, driven by a cross-contamination of the illegal opioid supply with fentanyl.

  • Research shows that in the 6-year period between 2011 and 2017, opioid overdose-related fatalities more than tripled, with 75% of the 1374 deaths related to fentanyl overdose.

  • Fentanyl test strips are the primary defense for drug users purchasing illegal substances. They are a cost-effective method of helping prevent drug overdoses.

Identifying Fentanyl: What does it look, smell, and taste like

Understanding fentanyl

Much like other opioid analgesics, fentanyl relaxes you, providing feelings of euphoria, pain relief, drowsiness and sedation.[1] 

It can also cause potentially adverse fentanyl side effects such as confusion, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and respiratory depression.[1]

The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid overdose epidemic, driven by a cross-contamination of the illegal opioid supply with fentanyl.[2]

Many people unknowingly consume fentanyl when it is mixed into other drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines.[3] Due to its enormous potency, only small amounts of fentanyl are required to cause fatalities, and using a drug that has been mixed with fentanyl can greatly increase a person’s risk of death.[3]

Research shows that in the 6-year period between 2011 and 2017, opioid overdose-related fatalities more than tripled, with 75% of the 1374 deaths related to fentanyl overdose.[2]

Overdose effects include stupor, pupillary size changes, cold and clammy skin, coma, cyanosis, and respiratory failure resulting in death.[1]

Identifying fentanyl

Fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids, are primarily culpable for drug overdose deaths in the US, responsible for over 150 deaths a day across the country.[4]

Whilst fentanyl is extremely difficult to detect using only our senses, any information you can use can help save lives.

What does fentanyl look like?

Typically, fentanyl is available in either liquid or powdered form.[5] 

There are various ways liquid fentanyl is packaged and consumed, with it being used as eye drops, nasal sprays, pipette drops, and as a substitute for heroin.[5]

Powdered fentanyl can resemble many other powdered forms of drugs. It is often hidden inside counterfeit prescription pills, such as fake Xanax or Percocet.[5]

What does fentanyl smell like?

Fentanyl is odorless, underlining how tricky it is to detect when mixed with other drugs.[6] This is dangerous, as illegal drug vendors may be economically incentivized to mix fentanyl powder with drugs such heroin or cocaine. 

Consequently, users aren’t aware how much fentanyl they are consuming until they are intoxicated, increasing the likelihood of overdose.

What does fentanyl taste like?

There are differing accounts of what fentanyl may taste like, with a consensus of it being tasteless.[6]

However, participants in a 2017 study claimed that fentanyl tasted sweet, going on to compare it to the bitterness of heroin.[7] This may be due to the illicit way the fentanyl is synthesized or the presence of a sugar diluent, such as lactose.[6]

Fentanyl test strips: The safest way to identify fentanyl

Fentanyl test strips are the primary defense for drug users purchasing illegal substances. They are a cost-effective method of helping prevent drug overdoses.[8] 

Fentanyl test strips are small strips of paper that identify the presence of fentanyl in different substances. They provide drug users with the means to recognize what they are consuming, by testing their pills, powders, and injectables.[8]

They cost as little as $1 per strip and can be obtained at most needle exchanges and other drug-related charitable organizations.

Having fentanyl strips to hand can dramatically reduce the risk of ingesting the synthetic opioid.

How to use fentanyl strips

  1. Put a small amount of the drug (minimum 10mg) of the drug to be tested in a sterile, dry container.

  2. Add water to the container and mix the contents. For fentanyl, ½ a teaspoon of water is sufficient.

  3. Place the wavy end of the test strip into the water and leave to soak for 15 seconds.

  4. Take the strip out of the water and place it on a flat surface for between two and five minutes.

Reading Results

  1. Positive Result: A single pink line on the left-hand side indicates that fentanyl is present in the solution you’ve tested. Discard the batch as using it could prove fatal.[8]

  2. Negative Result: Two pink lines indicate there is no fentanyl present in the solution you have tested. Whilst a solid indication, it is important to note that no fentanyl test strip is totally accurate. 

  3. Null Result: A single pink line on the right-hand side or no lines at all indicates a null test. In this case, repeat the process using a new strip.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorses state and community-level efforts to promote the usage of fentanyl test strips.[8] They announced federal funding to help people purchase FTS, providing a lifeline to communities struggling to cope with the effects of a damaging opioid overdose crisis. Read here to find out more about fentanyl test strips.