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FENTANYL CITRATE (fentanyl citrate injection, USP) Clinical Pharmacology


12.1 Mechanism of Action

Fentanyl is an opioid agonist whose principal actions of therapeutic value are analgesic and sedation.

12.2 Pharmacodynamics

Effects on the Central Nervous System

Fentanyl produces respiratory depression by direct action on brain stem respiratory centers. The respiratory depression involves a reduction in the responsiveness of the brain stem respiratory centers to both increases in carbon dioxide tension and electrical stimulation.

Fentanyl causes miosis, even in total darkness. Pinpoint pupils are a sign of opioid overdose but are not pathognomonic (e.g., pontine lesions of hemorrhagic or ischemic origins may produce similar findings). Marked mydriasis rather than miosis may be seen due to hypoxia in overdose situations.

Effects on the Gastrointestinal Tract and Other Smooth Muscle

Fentanyl causes a reduction in motility associated with an increase in smooth muscle tone in the antrum of the stomach and duodenum. Digestion of food in the small intestine is delayed and propulsive contractions are decreased. Propulsive peristaltic waves in the colon are decreased, while tone may be increased to the point of spasm resulting in constipation. Other opioid-induced effects may include a reduction in biliary and pancreatic secretions, spasm of sphincter of Oddi, and transient elevations in serum amylase.

Effects on the Cardiovascular System

Fentanyl produces peripheral vasodilation which may result in orthostatic hypotension or syncope. Manifestations of histamine release and/or peripheral vasodilation may include pruritus, flushing, red eyes, sweating, and/or orthostatic hypotension.

Effects on the Endocrine System

Opioids inhibit the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), cortisol, and luteinizing hormone (LH) in humans [see Adverse Reactions (6)]. They also stimulate prolactin, growth hormone (GH) secretion, and pancreatic secretion of insulin and glucagon.

Chronic use of opioids may influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, leading to androgen deficiency that may manifest as low libido, impotence, erectile dysfunction, amenorrhea, or infertility. The causal role of opioids in the clinical syndrome of hypogonadism is unknown because the various medical, physical, lifestyle, and psychological stressors that may influence gonadal hormone levels have not been adequately controlled for in studies conducted to date [see Adverse Reactions (6)].

Effects on the Immune System

Opioids have been shown to have a variety of effects on components of the immune system in in vitro and animal models. The clinical significance of these findings is unknown. Overall, the effects of opioids appear to be modestly immunosuppressive.

Concentration–Efficacy Relationships

A dose of 100 mcg (0.1 mg) (2.0 mL) of Fentanyl Citrate Injection is approximately equivalent in analgesic activity to 10 mg of morphine or 75 mg of meperidine.

The minimum effective analgesic concentration will vary widely among patients, especially among patients who have been previously treated with potent agonist opioids. The minimum effective analgesic concentration of fentanyl for any individual patient may increase over time due to an increase in pain, the development of a new pain syndrome and/or the development of analgesic tolerance [see Dosage and Administration (2.1, 2.2)].

The onset of action of fentanyl is almost immediate when the drug is given intravenously; however, the maximal analgesic effect may not be noted for several minutes. The usual duration of action of the analgesic effect is 30 to 60 minutes after a single intravenous dose of up to 100 mcg (0.1 mg) (2 mL). Following intramuscular administration, the onset of action is from seven to eight minutes, and the duration of action is one to two hours.

Concentration–Adverse Reaction Relationships

There is a relationship between increasing fentanyl plasma concentration and increasing frequency of dose-related opioid adverse reactions such as nausea, vomiting, CNS effects, and respiratory depression. In opioid-tolerant patients, the situation may be altered by the development of tolerance to opioid-related adverse reactions [see Dosage and Administration (2.1, 2.2)].

The onset of action of fentanyl is almost immediate when the drug is given intravenously; however, the maximal respiratory depressant effect may not be noted for several minutes. As with longer acting opioid analgesics, the duration of the respiratory depressant effect of fentanyl may be longer than the analgesic effect. The following observations have been reported concerning altered respiratory response to CO2 stimulation following administration of fentanyl citrate:

  • Diminished sensitivity to CO2 stimulation may persist longer than depression of respiratory rate. (Altered sensitivity to CO2 stimulation has been demonstrated for up to four hours following a single dose of 600 mcg (0.6 mg) (12 mL) fentanyl citrate to healthy volunteers). Fentanyl frequently slows the respiratory rate, duration and degree of respiratory depression being dose-related.
  • The peak respiratory depressant effect of a single intravenous dose of Fentanyl Citrate Injection is noted 5 to 15 minutes following injection [see Warnings and Precautions (5.2)].

12.3 Pharmacokinetics

Fentanyl Citrate Injection is administered by the intravenous or intramuscular route. The pharmacokinetics of fentanyl can be described as a three-compartment model.


Fentanyl plasma protein binding decreases with increasing ionization of the drug. Alterations in pH may affect its distribution between plasma and the central nervous system. It accumulates in skeletal muscle and fat, and is released slowly into the blood. The volume of distribution for fentanyl is 4 L/kg. It has a distribution time of 1.7 minutes and redistribution time of 13 minutes.


The terminal elimination half-life is 219 minutes.

Fentanyl, which is primarily transformed in the liver, demonstrates a high first-pass clearance and releases approximately 75% of an intravenous dose in urine, mostly as metabolites with less than 10% representing the unchanged drug. Approximately 9% of the dose is recovered in the feces, primarily as metabolites.

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