Prince's accidental fentanyl overdose highlights dangers of powerful opioid

On Thursday, the world learned it was an accidental overdose of a powerful pain drug that killed music legend, Prince. The painkiller fentanyl, which the Drug Enforcement Agency has deemed a public health threat, was "self-administered," according to his death certificate.

Fentanyl can be 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

"It's not something that is very commonly prescribed, except for very severe pain," said Dr. George Kolodner, medical director at Kolmac Outpatient Recovery Centers. "Fentanyl is incredibly potent."

Kolodner said while fentanyl is typically reserved for surgery, Prince may have had a legitimate prescription for it. Friends of the singer have said he had chronic pain because of years of high-intensity performing.

"It is very common that people get exposed to opioids because of a legitimate medical or surgical problem," Kolodner said.

Fentanyl has become popular on the black market. Around the DMV, police said they are seeing it cut with heroin.

"My understanding is it's being used more frequently in this area," Kolodner said.

What can be so terrifying about opioid addiction is sometimes even family and close friends miss the signs. Prince was on stage performing just a week before his death.

"I think there is a stereotype of drug addicts being low-functioning people, but in fact, the people we work with (at the treatment centers) are very high functioning," Kolodner said. "Three-quarters of people with addictions in general have jobs and are functioning. 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, and Kolodner said patients should consult with their doctor about avoiding addictive opioids if possible.

"I wouldn't say not to use it, but I would strongly urge people to think of it, not as a first resort, but as a backup," he said. "I would try other medications. You can get a remarkable amount of relief from non-opioid analgesics like Tylenol and Advil or Motrin."

The Centers for Disease Control reports that opioids killed more than 28,000 people in 2014, and at least half of opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.