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What does 'tranq' do to the body?: HealthLink

Xylazine, also known as "tranq," is often combined with fentanyl and is alarming to the DEA and medical circles because of its dangerous effects.

SEATTLE — Fentanyl addiction remains a grave problem in the U.S., but another drug is creeping into the picture that could complicate the existing opioid crisis.

Its street name is known as "tranq," short for tranquilizer, but its official name as a drug is xylazine.

"It's been around since the 1960s, but mostly it was never really used in humans because of side effects," said Dr. Scott Phillips, who has a background in medical toxicology and serves as executive medical director at the Washington Poison Center.

Xylazine is a sedative that is traditionally used as a tranquilizer for large animals like cows and horses and is not designed for humans.

"It's sedating. It's a cousin of a blood pressure medication we've used for decades," Phillips said. "That's really the effect; it sedates the brain and so people have found it as kind of a downer type of drug that they may like to take."

Lately, the drug has been detected among illicit drug users more than ever. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public safety alert about xylazine being mixed with fentanyl, an opioid.

"With something like fentanyl that further suppresses your breathing, that can be very dangerous," Phillips said.

Phillips adds he hasn't seen many cases in western Washington.

"But it's kind of moving into our area and I think everyone is going to be impacted by this at some point, it just remains to be seen how quickly," Phillips said.

This is concerning, he said, because of xylazine's dangerous effect on the body.

"It's pretty incapacitating and its effect on slowing the brain down, it also lowers the blood pressure, it lowers the heart rate, it can make you unresponsive," he said.

Naloxone, the drug used to reverse the deadly effects of an opioid overdose, does not work on someone suffering from a dangerous high off of xylazine.

"It causes some pretty significant skin wounds as well and that's just one of its effects; also causes the blood vessels to constrict, and so you don't get good blood flow to some of the injection sites," Phillips said.

All of this makes xylazine addiction difficult to treat that further complicates the existing opioid crisis, according to Phillips.

"It will stress some of our systems to deal with it because of the multiple effects it has," Phillips said.

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