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A New Adversary to Battle (Content Warning: graphic descriptions of wounds)

Tranq. Tranq dope. Sleep cut. Zombie drug. These are some of the colloquialisms used to describe xylazine, a tranquilizer typically used to sedate and/or relax animals including horses and cattle. But recently, this substance has made its way into America’s illicit drug supply as a means of augmenting the effects of fentanyl. And xylazine is making its mark known in some communities by causing a variety of awful symptoms among some individuals who use drugs including, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), difficulty breathing, slow heart rate, and very low blood pressure. Perhaps one of the most horrific symptoms that xylazine causes is a wound that can become infected and often lead to amputation of limbs.

In fact, the New York Times recently reported that one Philadelphia woman incurred a wound in her arm that started “hardening into an armor of crusty, blackened tissue.” The Times also highlighted another woman who, too, experienced the wrath of xylazine laced drugs. The paper wrote that “she unrolled a bandage from elbow to palm. Beneath patches of blackened tissue, exposed white tendons and pus, the sheared flesh was hot and red.”

Of course, there could be a fate even worse than the sure destruction of bodily limbs among people who use drugs laced with xylazine: Death. In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported in a June 15, 2023 Health Alert that as of the previous month (May 2023), 644 deaths occurred in 38 counties within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 2022 involving xylazine. Since 2018, the Department reports that this is a 1,000% increase in death.

The CDC says that xylazine is often mixed with such drugs as cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl in an effort to increase the weight of the drug to make it more valuable. Typically, xylazine is often injected, per the CDC, but it can also be ingested orally or sniffed into the body via the nasal passage.

If an individual overdoses on a drug containing xylazine, CDC public health experts recommend that you can help that person by calling 9-1-1 to report the possible overdose incident and stay with the person until emergency personnel get there. You can also administer naloxone or Narcan to the person. This substance can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. However, the Narcan is not designed to specifically address xylazine and the breathing difficulties that a person was experiencing may continue. Finally, rescue breaths may be needed to help the person who overdosed on xylazine.

Without a doubt, the landscape of drugs in the country and here in Pennsylvania has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Many lives have been interrupted and others ended because of drugs and now, we face yet another deadly substance to battle. Perhaps through education and awareness, we will be able to respond to this latest crisis more readily before it’s too late for others.


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