Competing risks of women and men who use fentanyl: "The number one thing I worry about would be my safety and number two would be overdose"

J Subst Abuse Treat. 2021 Jun:125:108313. doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2021.108313. Epub 2021 Jan 27.


Background: Standard public health approaches to risk communication do not address the gendered dynamics of drug use. The aim of this study was to explore perceptions of fentanyl-related risks among women and men to inform future risk communication approaches.

Methods: We conducted a qualitative study, purposively sampling English-speaking women and men, aged 18-25 or 35+ years, with past 12-month illicitly manufactured fentanyl use. In-depth individual interviews explored experiences of women and men related to overdose and fentanyl use. We conducted a grounded content analysis examining specific codes related to overdose and other health or social risks attributed to drug use. Using a constant comparison technique, we explored commonalities and differences in themes between women and men.

Results: The study enrolled twenty-one participants, 10 women and 11 men. All participants had personal overdose experiences. Both women and men described overdosing as a "chronic" condition and expressed de-sensitization to the risk of overdose. Women and men described other risks around health, safety, and state services that often superseded their fear of overdose. Women feared physical and sexual violence and prioritized caring for children and maintaining relations with child protective services, while men feared violence arising from obtaining and using street drugs and incarceration. Only women reported that fear of violence prevented their utilization of harm reduction services.

Conclusions: Experiences with overdose and risk communication among people who use fentanyl-containing opioids varied by gender. The development of gender-responsive programs that address targeted concerns may be an avenue to enhance engagement with harm reduction and treatment services and create safe spaces for women not currently accessing available services.

Keywords: Fentanyl; Gender; Overdose; Prevention; Risk-communication; Women.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects
  • Child
  • Drug Overdose* / drug therapy
  • Female
  • Fentanyl / adverse effects
  • Harm Reduction
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs*
  • Male
  • Young Adult


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Illicit Drugs
  • Fentanyl