July 6, 2023
While fentanyl continues to dominate headlines related to drug overdose in America, it is not the only dangerous drug in town. Tranq, zombie drug, tranq dope, sleep cut, and Philly dope are some of the slang names for a large-animal tranquilizing drug called xylazine that’s burst onto the scene of illegal street drugs.
Xylazine is a non-opioid sedative used by veterinarians, typically with horses, that is not approved for use in humans but has been making its way into common street drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, PCP, cocaine and amphetamines. From 2010 to 2015, xylazine was found in only 2% of heroin and/or fentanyl overdoses in Philadelphia. In 2019, that number jumped to 31% and in 2021, xylazine was found in over 90% of the city’s lab-tested opioid samples.
“It’s a very frightening thing,” says Barbara Schindler, MD, vice dean emerita and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Drexel University College of Medicine. “We thought things were bad with fentanyl, but this is even worse. It’s grown so much in the past few years, especially here on the East Coast. It’s widespread in Philadelphia street drugs and it’s frightening in a number of ways.”
‘It causes serious sedation, putting the brain to sleep, lowering blood pressure, and slowing the heart,” says Dr. Schindler. “It also causes skin lesions because it constricts blood vessels. These lesions form, not just at an injection site, but also on various areas of the body where the skin starts to decompose. And one of the scariest things is that it’s not an opioid, so Narcan doesn’t even begin to touch this. We have no antidote, so to speak.”
While xylazine is commonly mixed into other drugs, it can also be used on its own or in combination with other drugs, and it is typically used as an injection.
“COVID brought an uptick in substance abuse that hasn’t slowed,” says Dr. Schindler. “Overdose deaths continue to climb and xylazine adds another layer to the epidemic. We’re seeing hospital beds filled with patients with necrosis (those with severe skin cell death) and amputations because wounds don’t heal, and patients’ physical systems shut down. It’s very scary stuff and people don’t know they’re using it because it’s mixed in with other drugs. Philadelphia was once known as having the purest and cheapest heroin around, now nothing in the drug supply is pure We spend an enormous amount of time educating our patients about the dangers of street drugs.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, these resources can help:
Visit these sites to learn more about xylazine: