Overdose deaths involving zombie drug ‘tranq’ have skyrocketed

Overdose deaths involving a powerful animal tranquilizer called xylazine, also known as the “zombie drug,” have skyrocketed in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC released new data Thursday showing that from January 2019 through June 2022, the percentage of deadly opioid overdoses in which xylazine was detected rose by 276%, from 2.9% to 10.9%.

The East Coast seems to be the most affected region. Maryland had the worst rate, with 27.7 percent of fentanyl deaths involving xylazine. Connecticut was next highest at 26.4 percent, followed by Pennsylvania at 23.3 percent. However, the CDC says the actual number of cases involving xylazine could be even higher because of inconsistent testing.  

Emily’s Hope first reported about xylazine in March, when The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued an urgent public safety alert warning of a sharp increase in the amount of fentanyl mixed with xylazine. This powerful sedative, often called “tranq,” is actually approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration solely for veterinary use. It has earned the nickname “zombie drug” due to its ability to cause severe injuries and even tissue rot, sometimes leading to amputation. 

In addition to its “zombie” side effects, xylazine can cause dry mouth, drowsiness, hypertension, and tachycardia followed by hypotension and bradycardia, hyperglycemia, reduced heart rate, hypothermia, coma, respiratory depression, and dysrhythmia.

The drug can also lead to physical dependence, and some users report experiencing withdrawal symptoms that are more severe than those associated with heroin or methadone.

One particularly concerning aspect of xylazine is that it doesn’t respond to naloxone (Narcan), the life-saving opioid overdose reversal medication. Despite this, experts still recommend administering Narcan if someone might be experiencing a drug overdose.

According to the DEA, drug dealers add xylazine to other substances because it’s cheap and can be easily obtained from Chinese suppliers online. Additionally, it may attract users seeking a longer-lasting high since xylazine provides similar effects to opioids but with a prolonged duration compared to fentanyl alone.