Death of Prince highlights danger of powerful pain drug

The death of Prince from a fentanyl overdose caught both his fans and even his close friends by surprise.

But, the Drug Enforcement Agency has been warning about the prescription painkiller, which is considered the most powerful opioid medication available.  It’s been linked to a surge in drug overdoses across the country. 

Fentanyl is used to treat and manage very severe pain, like the kind some cancer patients experience.

It's similar to morphine but 80 times more powerful.  Take too much and fentanyl can suppress your breathing and cause you to lose consciousness, which can be deadly.

Dr. George Kolodner, an addiction psychiatrist, says fentanyl is so strong, it's typically reserved for surgery.

"It's not something that is very commonly prescribed except for very severe pain,” Kolodner says.

Fetanyl is so strong, it's typically reserved for during and after surgery. Friends of Prince have said the star was in constant pain from years of performing.

"It's very common that people get exposed to opioids because of a legitimate medical or surgical problem,” Kolodner says.

It's still unknown where Prince got the drug, which is said to be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

The DEA says fentanyl is increasingly being used to "cut" heroin, making it much more potent, and much more deadly.  Here in Georgia and across the country fentanyl-laced heroin has been linked to an "alarming" surge in overdose deaths.

And Dr. Kolodner says when it comes to opioid addiction, sometimes even family and close friends miss the warning signs, because many of addicts he works with are very high-functioning.

“Three-fourths pf people with addictions in general have jobs and are functioning,” says Dr. Kolodner. “And, particularly with opioids, you don't have a smell the way you do with alcohol. You don't  have the kind of intoxication that you do with alcohol or even marijuana. So it can be very invisible and people get taken by surprise."

Most of us will be prescribed painkillers in our lifetime.  Dr. Kolodner says talk to our doctor about avoiding potentially-addictive opioids, if possible.

"I wouldn't say not to use it,” he says. “But I would strongly urge people to think of it not as a first resort but as a back- up. I would try other medications."

You may be able to get relief from non-opioid pain medications, like Tylenol and ibuprofen.

Dr. Kolodner says losing a legend like Prince has at least sparked conversation that may help someone else.

In 2014, the CDC says almost 29,000 Americans died of a drug overdose.  In Georgia, there were just over than 1,200 hundred fatal overdoses.  That was a 10% jump in deaths from just one year before.