A veterinary sedative, Xylazine is now being mixed with street drugs and poses a huge risk to the public. In this Parade article, Mindpath Health’s Julian Lagoy, MD, explains why this furthers the ongoing opioid epidemic and how parents can talk to their kids about drugs.
The U.S. has grappled with a second wave of the opioid epidemic since 2010. And unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten much better in the last decade-plus. More than 70,000 people died from a synthetic opioid overdose, primarily fentanyl, in 2021, according to CDC data.
That’s not just a number—it represents people’s brothers, sisters, parents and friends. And while people may want to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it appears the crisis will deepen before it gets better. That’s in part because of a drug called Xylazine. The drug is actually not an opioid. Rather, it’s a sedative used in veterinary medicine.
What is Xylazine?
Xylazine is a tranquilizer, explains Aymet Demara, a licensed associate substance abuse therapist (LASAC).
“The drug is used mainly for large animals in the veterinarian field for medical procedures,” Demara says. “[It is] not meant for the human population but can be seen in drugs that are used today, such as fentanyl. This drug can mimic the use of a tranquilizer as well.”
According to a New York Times report, Xylazine was discovered in Kensington, Pennsylvania, in 2006, but unintentional use surged there and spread throughout the Northeast region in 2018.
Xylazine, pronounced zai-luh-zeen, has several nicknames.
“Tranq and zombie drug are the most common names for this as it is a sub-name for a tranquilizer,” Demara explains, adding that she expects more names to develop as the drug’s use grows.
Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, adds that some other names include dope, sleep cut, and anesthesia de caballo (horse anesthesia).
Why are people using Xylazine?
Unlike opioids, people aren’t actively seeking out Xylazine.
“It has been found in drugs, often co-occurring with fentanyl and other substances,” says Dr. Tasha Turner-Bicknell, DNP, RN, CPH. “Xylazine has been found in heroin, cocaine and illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
What are the issues with Xylazine?
Lacing drugs isn’t exactly a novel idea. But what makes Xylazine so different? Developed for veterinarian use in the 1960s, human trials ceased because Xylazine carried respiratory suppression risk. That remains a problem today.
“Risks of Xylazine include hypotension, bradycardia, hypothermia, over sedation, respiratory suppression and death,” says Dr. Lagoy.
Dr. Bicknell adds that it can also trigger “skin rot,” or open wounds that can erupt and become infected. Left untreated, amputation may be required.
And experts say it’s making opioid addiction worse.
Reversing an overdose is challenging. Unlike opioids, the drug is a sedative and does not respond to NARCAN, explains Demara. So, if a person is overdoses on fentanyl and Xylazine, NARCAN can address the fentanyl—but not the Xylazine.
Talking to your kids about drugs
Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to drug addiction. But the days of simply saying “Just say no” are over.
“You need to be upfront with them and honest and straightforward about the severe dangers of drug use so that they make the right decision not to use it,” says Dr. Lagoy.
For example, parents can look for natural ways to bring up conversations, such as seeing a report on drug use. Then, they can ask their child what they know about drugs. Listen and share what you’ve heard. Make sure they know they can always come to you with questions.