Fighting Fentanyl: Emergency medicine physician explains how fentanyl harms the body

A local doctor said patients across San Antonio are suffering from overdoses.

PEARSALL, Texas – It’s a simple question: what does fentanyl do to your body?

Dr. Shawn Varney, an emergency medicine physician at UT Health San Antonio, said the synthetic opioid enters the brain quickly. That’s why fentanyl overdoses are common.

“Fentanyl is so strong, it binds to receptors in your brain, and it makes you stop breathing before you lose consciousness,” Varney said.

Dr. Varney said patients across San Antonio are suffering from overdoses.

Texas’s Health and Human Services Commission (HHS) said 883 people in the state died from fentanyl-related overdoses in 2020.

The same government agency said that number may have increased by 89% one year later. According to Texas HHS, there were 1,672 fentanyl-related overdoses in 2021.

If you notice someone is overdosing from a fentanyl overdose, Varney said it’s important to act quickly.

“Usually, they’re not breathing. They have decreased level of consciousness, meaning they’re altered or even comatose, and then they have very small pupils,” Varney said.

“If your brain goes without oxygen for four minutes or more, you will have your brain cells die, and then there’s no coming back from that,” he added.

However, even those who survive a fentanyl overdose may experience another problem. Because of the drug’s high relapse rate, individuals suffering from addiction to fentanyl are likely to suffer another overdose, and each overdose leaves brain damage.

“It’s cumulative, so every time this happens, you’re losing more brain cells. It’s just like drinking alcohol. You’re killing brain cells. They’re not coming back,” Varney said.

If you see someone suffering from an overdose, call 911. Also, administering Narcan, the medication that stops an overdose, is an option. You can learn how to use it and get it mailed to your house for free by visiting the following websites:


About the Author

Stephania Jimenez is an anchor on The Nightbeat. She began her journalism career in 2006, after graduating from Syracuse University. She's anchored at NBC Philadelphia, KRIS in Corpus Christi, NBC Connecticut and KTSM in El Paso. Although born and raised in Brooklyn, Stephania considers Texas home. Stephania is bilingual! She speaks Spanish.

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