Photo of a prescription pill bottle laying open with pills coming out on a table.

As Colorado continues to see an increase in fentanyl overdoses, it’s important for parents and families to understand the potential impacts of fentanyl. Here are three things to know about fentanyl and tips for starting a conversation with your student.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin or morphine.

Drug traffickers often mix fentanyl into other drugs because it is cheap to manufacture and a small amount goes a long way.

Why is fentanyl dangerous?

Because fentanyl is often mixed into other substances, students may consume it without meaning to, which can cause accidental overdoses or deaths.Photo of 2 mg of fentanyl next to a penny for scale.

Fentanyl is often added to:

  • Pressed pills meant to look like prescription medications (like Xanax, Adderall or Oxycodone)
  • Powders (like cocaine)
  • Capsules
  • Illicit drugs (like methamphetamine and heroin)
  • … and more

Experts consider 2 mg of fentanyl to be lethal, but many counterfeit pills contain up to 5 mg (more than twice the lethal dose). Check out the image to the side for scale to see what 2 mg of fentanyl looks like. 

 Important: While the drugs listed above have tested positive for fentanyl by public health agencies, it’s important to remember that any pill or drug sold on the internet, on the streets or by a person your student knows could contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.

How common is fentanyl?

Fentanyl may be more common than you think.

Colorado authorities have seen a large influx of fentanyl over the past two years and are expecting to see a steady number of overdoses. In fact, the CDC announced that fentanyl is now the leading cause of death among adults 18 to 45 in the United States. 

Additionally, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), nearly half of all counterfeit pills tested contained a lethal dose of fentanyl. This figure is particularly alarming because it can be difficult to distinguish genuine pills from fake or counterfeit versions. Check out the examples below to see how counterfeit pills can be designed to look just like genuine pharmaceuticals.

Source: Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)


Street names include: 30s, M30s, oxy, kickers, 40s, 512s, blues 

Source: Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)


Street names include: bars, benzos, bricks, ladders, sticks, xanies, zanbars, z-bars

Source: Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)


Prescribed as: Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, Dexedrine, Focalin, Metadate and Methylin.

Tips for talking with your student

Talking with your student about fentanyl can help them practice safer habits and be prepared to help a friend in case of an emergency.

Like other hard conversations, it’s important to create a safe space for your student to ask questions or come to you if they need support in the future. Remember to focus on listening to your student’s perspective and experience without judgment. If you need clarification, ask follow-up questions. Finally, be sure to let your student know that you want to have this conversation with them because you care about them. It’s okay to be vulnerable and share that you are worried about their safety or that you’ve seen troubling fentanyl-related stories in the news that give you cause for concern.

Here are some additional tips you can share with your student to help keep them safer. Please note that due to the unpredictability of fentanyl, there is no foolproof way to eliminate the risk of overdose. 

Be safe, not sorry

If your student chooses to use, encourage them to assume that any pill or drug not purchased directly from a pharmacy could contain fentanyl. This includes illicit drugs (cocaine, heroin, meth, etc.) as well as prescription medications (Xanax, Oxycodone, etc.).

Remind your student that if they purchase prescriptions or other drugs from a friend or acquaintance, they should start with a very small dose (such as a quarter of a pill). It’s important to know that some pills contain pure fentanyl while others may have fentanyl mixed in, so the amount present in a single pill or drug can vary greatly. One pill may be fine, and the next may not be.

Be prepared to call for help

Talk to your student about the signs of a potential overdose and encourage them to call for help anytime someone is passed out or unresponsive. Students may be protected by the CU Boulder Amnesty Policy and 911 Good Samaritan Law if they call for help in a drug- or alcohol-related emergency. 

Look for these signs:

  • Passed out or unresponsive
  • Pinpoint (small) pupils
  • Shallow or no breathing
  • Blue or grayish lips/fingernails
  • No response to stimulus (i.e. being pinched)
  • Gurgling/heavy wheezing or snoring sound

If the person doesn’t respond:

  • Call 911
  • Administer naloxone if available
  • Start CPR

 Important: Naloxone will not harm someone who is not overdosing—when in doubt use it!

Have naloxone on hand

Encourage your student to keep naloxone on hand. Naloxone is an FDA-approved medication (often known by the brand name Narcan) that can be used to temporarily reverse opioid overdoses, including those caused by fentanyl. Naloxone is typically administered through a nasal spray, and is available for free to all CU Boulder students, staff and faculty through the pharmacy at Wardenburg Health Center.

Naloxone should be used anytime someone is passed out or unresponsive, especially at parties. Let your student know that naloxone won’t impact anyone who doesn’t have opioids in their system, so when in doubt, encourage them to use it. Remind your student to call 911 in any potential overdose situation.

 Important: Because fentanyl is more potent than other opioids, naloxone can wear off more quickly or a person may require additional doses to prevent them from overdosing. 

Learn more about naloxone and who should carry it

Test for fentanyl

Students can also purchase a number of test strips for fentanyl at local pharmacies. However, it’s important to remind them that a negative result does not mean there is no fentanyl present. It is possible for fentanyl to exist in an untested area of a pill or for the pill to contain a different synthetic opioid product.

Sobriety can reduce tolerance 

If your student has used prescription or illicit opioids in the past and has recently experienced a period of sobriety, their tolerance for the drug has likely decreased. Encourage them to be mindful about potential changes in drug potency and to start with a lower dose than they may have used in the past.

What resources are available?

Campus resources

Health and Wellness Services provides an educational and non-judgmental environment for students to learn more about harm reduction strategies and life-saving measures.

Free naloxone

Naloxone is an FDA-approved medication that can be used to temporarily reverse opioid overdoses. Medical Services has made naloxone available to all CU Boulder students, staff and faculty through the Apothecary Pharmacy at Wardenburg Health Center.

Overdose prevention and response training

Our training programs help prepare students, staff and faculty to prepare for and respond to different scenarios related to alcohol and other drugs. These programs are intended to help Buffs support each other and respond to emergencies.

Personalized harm reduction workshops

Our workshops provide an opportunity for individuals or small groups to gain a better understanding of their relationship with substances and gain the skills and support for behavior change.

Recovery support

The CU Collegiate Recovery Community (CUCRC) provides support, community and connection for students, faculty and staff in recovery or seeking recovery from a wide range of behaviors. Our mission is to help develop peer-to-peer connections, support resiliency and contribute to their overall well-being through a welcoming and supportive community. 

Community resources

If you are not a staff or faculty member, or if you have a student who does not attend CU Boulder, you can still access support resources and services through the community.


Over 200 pharmacies in Colorado carry naloxone. Check out this map to find out where you can purchase naloxone. No prescription required.

Boulder County Public Health Works Program

Boulder County Public Health’s Works Program is a non-judgmental substance use harm reduction program that provides free naloxone, fentanyl test strips, treatment and community referrals, overdose prevention materials and more.

Community members are welcome to stop by any of their locations to pick up free supplies.

Recovery support

There are a variety of recovery support services available throughout Boulder and other communities. Explore 12-step programs, support groups, coaching options and more.