Often, a medical examiner will rely on toxicology or toxicological findings to determine cause of death. Toxicology, or the study of poisons, refers to the labwork performed on the body post-mortem. Occasionally, the cause of death will be listed as “fentanyl intoxication.” I have received calls from potential clients who wondered why the medical examiner listed “intoxication” as the cause of death, as they had not noticed the family member to be “intoxicated” as that word is generally used when referring to alcohol intoxication. Intoxication means that the drug has reached “toxic” or poisonous levels. The medical examiner could have also listed fentanyl overdose as cause of death, or fentanyl poisoning. It would have meant the same thing as fentanyl intoxication.
Fentanyl (Duragesic®) is a narcotic (opioid) pain medication that comes, not in a pill form, but in a patch applied to the skin. The fentanyl patch works by slowly releasing the narcotic pain reliever directly into the skin over several days.
If fentanyl or high doses of opiates are used in patients who are not “opioid tolerant”—sometimes called opioid-naïve, the patient can suffer an overdose and die.
For patients who are not opioid-tolerant, the amount of fentanyl in one fentanyl patch of the lowest strength is large enough to cause dangerous side effects, such as respiratory depression (severe trouble breathing or very slow or shallow breathing) and death.