HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – It’s an emerging threat that’s the stuff of nightmares.

Experts say xylazine use is spiking across the nation.

Known as tranq, or the zombie drug, xylazine is an FDA-approved sedative and pain reliever for animals. It can have deadly consequences for people who take it – including respiratory depression, slowed heart rate and rotting flesh.

Now, experts and the Drug Enforcement Administration are finding xylazine mixed with other drugs such as fentanyl. Taking opioids in combination with xylazine or other central nervous system depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines increases the risk of life-threatening overdose.

“We know fentanyl is the drug of most concern right now,” said Dr. Alexis Page, deputy director of pharmacy services for the Virginia Department of Health. “Fentanyl already puts you at increased risk of overdose. Xylazine is just going to increase your risk that much more.”

The DEA earlier this year issued a public safety alert about the combination of xylazine and fentanyl that has been turning up in pills and illicit substances, which one DEA administrator called “the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier.”

Page said people mix xylazine with opioids because it gives them a longer high, in other words, lengthening the euphoric effects of opioids.

“If you’re using xylazine to increase the euphoric effect of those opioids, that does increase your risk of having an overdose,” Page said.

A recent report by the White House shows a rise in the drug across the entire nation during the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably in the south and west. It says the United States is facing its most dangerous illegal drug supply in history.

“It’s within the past year I would say that it’s become alarming or it’s been brought to the Department of Health’s attention that xylazine is a drug that’s causing overdoses,” Page said.

The report shows that overdoses involving xylazine increased by more than 1,000% in the south.

Page said the agency tracked its first xylazine death in 2019, and those numbers have continued to grow – to 40 in 2021 and 33 in 2022. Most, if not all, are also associated with fentanyl.

It’s been within the past year that it has become more common and found in illicit drug supplies, which has caused an increase in overdose deaths. And as yet, there is no overdose prevention drug for xylazine.

“The normal process for the drug to be approved through the FDA … sometimes takes a decade,” Page said. “However, given our current situation, a new drug to reverse the effects of xylazine may be expedited through the FDA review process.”