By Beth Burgess

Although many people know that injecting, smoking and inhaling drugs can cause intoxication, few are aware that many drugs can be absorbed just by touching small amounts of them. Drugs absorbed through the skin can have the same effect as taking them in more conventional ways, including causing inebriation, health problems, overdose and even death.

Patrolman Overdoses on Fentanyl During Drug Raid

Police officers dealing with drug seizures and testing have been forced to change procedures to avoid accidental exposure to hazardous substances after an Ohio patrolman was left in a critical condition following skin contact with Fentanyl.

According to WKBN-TV, patrolman Chris Green had searched a vehicle believed to be involved in a drug transaction. White powder was found inside the vehicle and on the clothing of the driver and passenger.

Officer Green happened to pick up a small patch of powder on his shirt and instinctively brushed it off with his hand. An hour later, Green passed out, suffering from a suspected Fentanyl overdose.

An Accidental Acid Trip

It is not only Fentanyl that is subject to percutaneous absorption. Many drugs can be absorbed through the skin – and sometimes only small amounts can cause massive consequences.

The first well-documented evidence of this was in 1943 when Albert Hofman unintentionally invented LSD – ironically in a bid to create a medication to treat respiratory depression and tranquilizer overdoses.

While synthesizing the drug, the Swiss scientist inadvertently absorbed a tiny amount of LSD through his skin. He reported bizarre experiences from the incident, including extreme restlessness, dizziness, intoxication, photophobia, and hallucinations which lasted for roughly two hours.

Drugs Which Can Penetrate the Skin

The fact that percutaneous absorption of drugs is possible has led to legitimate prescriptions in patch form. Fentanyl, Ritalin, Dramamine and nicotine are all available as prescription patches designed to be stuck to the epidermis to provide a continuous, steady dose of medicine.

The knowledge that drugs can be absorbed through the skin has also led to the creation of Methadone and Morphine patches, which can be abused by drug addicts. Heroin addicts often use opiates on top of heroin substitutes and may seek out painkilling patches while still using heroin, which only adds to their addiction problems.

Most illicit drugs can be absorbed through the skin if they are handled frequently and in large quantities. Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, crack, ecstasy and ketamine are all drugs which can be percutaneously absorbed.

Innocent Victims of Crystal Meth Exposure

The reason drugs officers wear biohazard suits when raiding suspected meth labs is partly because the potent drug can be absorbed so easily.

Sadly, there are many cases of children being affected by exposure to crystal meth in home-based laboratories. Children living in meth labs can inadvertently inhale the hazardous fumes produced during the drug’s creation process or the second-hand smoke of adults actively using meth.

But children can also become ill by absorbing methamphetamine through the skin – and this is easily done. Regular cleaning does not remove meth, so labs are likely to contain many contaminated surfaces, including work-tops, floors, utensils and cutlery. Meth also clings to absorbent materials and can contaminate furniture, clothing and even food.

Percutaneous exposure to high levels of methamphetamine can result in dizziness, ataxia, chemical burns, respiratory failure and death.

Parts of the Body that Can Absorb Drugs

Drugs can be absorbed through many parts of the body, including mucous membranes in the lips, nose and eyes, and when drugs are taken up in these ways, they can act incredibly quickly.

Some medications, such as anti-emetics and anti-diarrhoeals, are designed to dissolve under the tongue or through the gums to provide speedy relief from symptoms. While this is clearly beneficial for patients with genuine medical needs, in the case of exposure to dangerous drugs, rapid absorption can be dangerous.

Cocaine and amphetamine users are known to rub the drugs into their gums in order to get high more quickly. The hazard of doing this is that it heightens the risk of physical damage and overdose, especially since a drug user never knows how pure their substance is or with which other chemicals it may have been cut.

The Dangers of Drugs Absorbed Through Skin

Substance misusers may assume using patches, for example, is less harmful than injecting. But, often drug users do not realize the potency of certain drugs, nor exactly what is in them, especially if they have been specifically created for illegal use. They may also be ignorant to the fact that simply touching drugs can give them an additional dose on top of what they originally intended to take. This all leads to an increased risk of overdose.

The fact that even small amounts of certain drugs, such as Fentanyl can be near-fatal, simply by being handled is a frightening reality for everyone, but especially for drug users and police officers working on drug teams.

Luckily, patrolman Green was eventually revived from his accidental overdose, but it took four doses of Narcan to save his life. Green’s case shows how even a tiny brush with a drug can easily lead to overdose — and possibly death.