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Navigating the Effects of Xylazine: A Comprehensive Guide

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

February 29, 2024

Table of Contents

Xylazine, a veterinary sedative not authorized for human consumption, is increasingly implicated in overdose fatalities across the United States with rates of drug addiction and overdoses reaching all-time highs.

Research indicates that individuals exposed to xylazine frequently use the drug alongside other substances, especially fentanyl. This polysubstance use may be intentional or unintentional. The use of xylazine is linked to serious health issues, including severe depression of the respiratory and central nervous systems, major cardiovascular problems, and the possibility of disfiguring skin ulcers (called xylazine wounds), and life-threatening outcomes. Read on to learn more about the damaging side effects of xylazine and find out how to connect with effective and compassionate treatment.

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The Spectrum of Xylazine Effects

Xylazine, mainly known for its use in veterinary medicine, triggers a broad range of effects when misused by humans. Xylazine side effects span from its desired sedative and analgesic properties to severe, unintended health consequences.

  • Sedation and analgesia: At the core of xylazine’s appeal for illicit use is its potent sedative effect, which provides a deep sense of relaxation and pain relief. This makes it attractive to some people as an additive to enhance the effects of other drugs or as a primary substance of abuse for its tranquilizing properties.
  • Respiratory and central nervous system depression: Like many sedatives, xylazine significantly depresses the respiratory and central nervous systems. This can lead to dangerously slow breathing and reduced brain activity, potentially leading to respiratory failure or coma, especially when used in high doses or combined with other depressants of the CNS.
  • Cardiovascular effects: Xylazine influences heart function and blood pressure regulation, often causing bradycardia (slow heart rate) and hypotension (low blood pressure). This cardiovascular xylazine effect can be particularly dangerous, leading to fainting, dizziness, and, in extreme cases, critical conditions like shock or cardiac arrest.
  • Skin and soft tissue damage: Chronic use of xylazine has been linked to severe skin ulcers and infections, especially around injection sites. These conditions are not only painful but can also lead to long-term scarring, infections, and may require surgical intervention.
  • Withdrawal syndrome: While less understood than withdrawal from substances like opioids or benzodiazepines, xylazine withdrawal presents its own set of challenges, including anxiety, irritability, and physical discomfort. The lack of a well-defined protocol for managing xylazine withdrawal complicates treatment for those seeking to discontinue use.
  • Risk of overdose: Overdose risk with xylazine is significant because of its potent respiratory depressant effects. An overdose can quickly become life-threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency. The absence of a specific antidote for xylazine intensifies the dangers associated with its overdose.

As xylazine misuse continues to intersect with the opioid epidemic, understanding its wide-ranging impacts can help inform the development of effective prevention and treatment strategies.

Xylazine Side Effects in Humans

The side effects of xylazine in humans include but are not limited to:

  • Drowsiness and sedation: Profound lethargy and a deep state of calm.
  • Memory Impairment: Short-term memory loss and difficulties in recalling recent events.
  • Loss of motor coordination: Unsteady movements and trouble with coordination.
  • Dry mouth: Reduced saliva production prompting a feeling of dryness in the mouth.
  • Blurred vision: Difficulty focusing, leading to blurred or altered vision.
  • Constipation: Reduced bowel movements and difficulty passing stools.
  • Urinary retention: Difficulty in urinating or complete inability to urinate.
  • Low blood sugar: Episodes of hypoglycemia, especially dangerous for diabetics.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Feeling sick and vomiting, which may not relieve nausea.
  • Psychological distress: Episodes of anxiety, depression, or acute panic attacks.
  • Tolerance development: Need for increasingly larger doses of xylazine to achieve the same effects.
  • Physical dependence: Body’s adaptation to the drug, leading to withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.
  • Hypothermia: Lowered body temperature, sometimes reaching dangerous levels.

The Dangers of Xylazine Overdose

An overdose involving xylazine-laced illicit drugs can lead to acute toxicity, causing profound depression of the CNS, significantly slowed breathing and heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and in severe instances, heart failure.

Xylazine’s toxic effects are marked by a downturn in CNS activity. Signs of this include:

  • Euphoria
  • Heavy sedation
  • Dry mouth
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Confusion
  • Coordination problems
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Lowered body temperature
  • Elevated blood sugar levels

When xylazine is mixed with other substances that slow down the CNS – opioids, benzos, or alcohol, for instance – the risk of severe CNS depression increases, potentially leading to:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Coma
  • Muscle weakness
  • Erratic blood pressure
  • Severe breathing difficulties
  • Loss of reflexes
  • Weakness
  • Stopped breathing
  • Heart rhythm problems
  • Cardiac arrest

The danger of fatal overdose climbs sharply when xylazine is used with fentanyl or similar synthetic opioids, due to their combined effects further impairing respiratory function.

Overdoses involving xylazine may be challenging to recognize in medical settings because they present with symptoms similar to those of opioid overdoses and are not typically detected in standard drug screenings. Currently, there is no antidote approved for treating xylazine overdose in humans. Although naloxone, the antidote for opioid overdoses, does not counteract the effects of xylazine directly, it can still be useful for treating the opioid component of a mixed overdose by restoring normal breathing, which might be enough to save a life despite xylazine’s presence complicating the situation.

Tranq Dope Effects: A Closer Look

Mixing xylazine (a veterinary tranquilizer) with fentanyl (a potent synthetic opioid) creates a particularly dangerous combination with severe and specific health implications. This mix amplifies the risks associated with each substance individually and introduces unique challenges in managing overdoses.

  • Enhanced sedation and respiratory depression: Both fentanyl and xylazine are central nervous system depressants, but they affect the body in slightly different ways. Fentanyl mainly targets opioid receptors, leading to pain relief and sedation, while xylazine depresses the central nervous system more broadly. When combined, the two substances can cause extreme sedation to the point of unconsciousness and significantly decrease respiratory function. This dual action greatly increases the risk of respiratory failure, a leading cause of fatal overdose.
  • Prolonged effects: Xylazine can extend the duration of fentanyl’s effects. This prolonged impact not only increases the risk of overdose but also complicates the treatment of overdoses because the effects last longer than those of fentanyl alone. This can lead to a prolonged period of dangerously slowed breathing and heart rate, requiring extended medical intervention.
  • Increased risk of hypotension and bradycardia: Both substances can lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. When used together, these effects are compounded, leading to severe hypotension and bradycardia, which can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.
  • Challenges in overdose treatment: Treating an overdose caused by the combination of xylazine and fentanyl is more complex than treating an overdose of either substance alone. Naloxone, the antidote commonly used to reverse opioid overdoses, does not counteract the effects of xylazine. This means that while naloxone may reverse the opioid effects of fentanyl, the respiratory depression and sedation caused by xylazine may persist, complicating resuscitation efforts.
  • Skin and soft tissue infections: Xylazine has been linked to skin ulcers and infections, especially at injection sites, although potentially occurring elsewhere on the body. When combined with fentanyl, people may be less aware of these injuries due to the profound sedation, leading to delayed treatment and increased risk of serious infection or tissue damage.

The combination of xylazine and fentanyl represents a significant public health threat, with the potential for deadly outcomes. Awareness and understanding of the compounded risks of this mixture are essential for both those using the drug and healthcare providers to prevent and effectively respond to overdoses.

Get Help for Xylazine Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

Researchers believe that xylazine is even more addictive than fentanyl, but xylazine addiction is nevertheless treatable.

If you feel that you need treatment but you are unable to take a month or more away from your personal and professional commitments, our outpatient programs allow you to engage with treatment during weekday sessions around your existing obligations.

Don’t let the fact that xylazine does not respond to traditional medication-assisted treatment prevent you from getting the help you need. All addictions respond favorably to behavioral therapies. Learn to address negative thought patterns and behaviors, and develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with life’s stressors without resorting to substance use.

Xylazine addiction treatment programs at Renaissance offer an individualized blend of treatments that may include:

  • Motivational therapies like contingency management
  • Psychotherapies like CBT or DBT
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • One-to-one counseling
  • Holistic treatments
  • Aftercare planning

For immediate assistance tackling the effect of xylazine abuse, call Renaissance at 866.330.9449.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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