What makes fentanyl so dangerous?

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Upswing in Fentanyl Deaths Linked to Drug's Potency

There's been a sharp upswing in fatal overdoses from the painkiller fentanyl in recent years, which the Drug Enforcement Administration says is thanks at least in part to how powerful it is.

A dose of the drug is about 100 times more potent than the same amount of morphine.

SEE MORE: Heroin Might Be The Most Addictive Drug, And It's A Growing Problem

Certain synthetic versions can be 10,000 times stronger. They're marketed as elephant tranquilizer — and now they're finding their way into recreational drugs in the Midwest.

Both fentanyl and morphine act on the same receptors in the brain as a sedative, to suppress pain and to slow down breathing. Like morphine, fentanyl is used to treat severe pain, sometimes during recovery from surgery. So what makes fentanyl so much worse?

Learn more about the drug:

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Fentanyl Citrate, a CLASS II Controlled Substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the secure area of a local hospital Friday, July10, 2009.

(Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

A seized counterfeit hydrocodone tablets in the investigation of a rash of fentanyl overdoses in northern California is shown in this Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) photo released on April 4, 2016. At least 42 drug overdoses in the past two weeks have been reported in northern California, 10 of them fatal, in what authorities on Monday called the biggest cluster of poisonings linked to the powerful synthetic narcotic fentanyl ever to hit the U.S. West Coast.

(Drug Enforcement Administration/Handout via Reuters)

Fentanyl Citrate, a CLASS II Controlled Substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the secure area of a local hospital Friday, July10, 2009.

(Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Dory Bauler's unused Fentanyl patch packets. She is one of millions of patients who used the fentanyl patch, which delivers a powerful narcotic through the skin. The patch, brand name Duragesic, was the subject of a recent FDA alert. Patients are overdosing, sometimes they die. Mrs. Bauler came off the patch when she realized the drug was causing her breathing problems, a sign of serious trouble. This photo was taken at her home in Laguna Woods.

(Photo by Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A small bag of straight Fentanyl on display at the State Crime Lab at the Ohio Attorney General's headquarters of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation on Wednesday, September 16, 2015 in London, Ohio.

(Photo by Ty Wright for/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

'If I don't put these on, it hurts to breathe,' says Smitty Anderson wearing Fentanyl patches to help him deal with the pain caused by multiple myeloma cancer, a blood cancer that affects the bones. Anderson worked at Savannah River Site from 1981 to 1998. The Andersons filed claims to get federal compensation for his disease, which he said came from working at the nuclear site. He had no luck. 'We've been going through so much red tape for years,' he said. 'My wife has to do all the work now. I just don't have the strength anymore.' He died on Nov. 5, 2015.

(Gerry Melendez/The State/TNS via Getty Images)

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It was designed in 1960 explicitly to act faster and be stronger than morphine.

This is thanks to its chemical structure. While morphine is hydrophilic, meaning it dissolves in water, fentanyl is lipophilic, meaning it dissolves in lipids and fats.

The blood-brain barrier naturally keeps out most hydrophilic molecules, but it lets in many lipophilic ones.

Fentanyl is more than 130 times more likely to enter the brain than morphine — so a similar dose can have a much more significant impact.

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