What is the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids? - Kentucky Addiction & Mental Health Treatment

What is the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids?

Saturday, July 28, 2018 | By Chris Clancy

opiates and opioids

Our nation is facing an opioid crisis. Or is it an opiate crisis? If you’ve been reading the news you’ve likely heard about the opioid epidemic, but you might have also heard there’s an opiate epidemic. Obviously, the words ‘opiate’ and ‘opioid’ are similar – but do they mean the same thing?

There’s plenty of confusion surrounding the two terms, so let’s cut through the confusion by examining what opiates are, what opioids are, and what both mean for addiction.  

What are Opiates?

An opiate is any drug, pharmaceutical, or other substance derived naturally from opium found in the poppy plant. Opiates bind to the opioid receptors found in the body to create their effects. Opiates include heroin and morphine.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are any medication or drug that binds to opioid receptors in the brain. Several years ago, the term opioids only referred to synthetic drugs that bind to opioid receptors but is now a catch-all term for both naturally-derived opiates and any synthetically-created opioid-bonding drug.

What are Synthetic Opioids?

Synthetic opioids are typically more powerful than natural opioids and include some of the strongest and most dangerous medications like fentanyl. Synthetic opioids recreate the same effects as opiates since they bond to the same receptors – but are not derived from opium. Synthetic opioids were developed to treat chronic and severe pain.

The Key Difference

Did you catch the key difference there? Though opioids used to only refer to synthetically-produced medications, it now refers to all pharmaceuticals or substances that bind to the opioid receptors found in the brain – both natural and synthetic. Think of it this way, all squares, and rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. In the same way, all opiates are considered opioids but not all opioids are opiates.

opiates, opioids and drug paraphernalia

Are Synthetic Opioids More Addictive Than Opiates?

You could argue that synthetic opioids are more addictive than opiates simply because they are more powerful. A more powerful drug will give stronger effects but will also cause a chemical dependency to develop more quickly. Greater drug effects typically create stronger withdrawal effects too. Withdrawal is a top reason many opioid addicts find it difficult to seek treatment or just put their pills down.

Just because synthetic opioids are more powerful doesn’t mean opiates aren’t addictive too. Opiates like heroin are also very powerful and can cause addiction and chemical dependency before the user realizes. If you’re thinking of trying opiates recreationally and you’re looking for the ‘safer’ option, make no mistake – all opiates are incredibly addictive and can ruin your life almost overnight.

The Difference in Addiction

Is there a difference between being addicted to natural or synthetic opioids? Not really. Since all opioids bind to the same receptors, their mechanism of action and the propensity for addiction are similar. The bonding action is what causes the effects of opiates like euphoria, but it’s also the same action that causes chemical dependency.

The only discernible difference in synthetic and natural opioids is in their dosage. Some synthetic opioids like fentanyl are much stronger than natural opioids, which means the chemical dependency might be stronger, and treatment could be more difficult. Though there may be differences in dependency between the two, the same treatment methods are used with slight adjustments.

The Dangers

All opioids are central nervous system (CNS) depressants which makes them particularly dangerous when abused. There are many dangers to even the most popular opioids available on the market. Let’s learn about the dangers and consequences of all opioids.

Addiction and Dependency

Opioids are very addictive. Addiction can develop after just one use while chemical dependency can develop after just a few days of regular opioid abuse. The addiction and dependency on opioids is the first step to further dangers of opioids.

Physical Dangers

Opioid withdrawal can cause fever, severe aches and pains, insomnia, anxiety, and several other unpleasant symptoms. While you can’t die from opioid withdrawal, some users report it will make you wish you were dead. Opiate withdrawal can make you too sick to enjoy the important parts of your life including family and work.

There are much more physical dangers to opioids than withdrawal. CNS drugs like opioids can literally stop your heart. Opioid abuse causes a slowing down of your brain, heart, lungs, and other vital organs and it’s not difficult to overdose on these powerful drugs. Opioid overdose can cause shallow breathing, erratic heartbeat, coma, and death. First-time users can die from opioid abuse.

Psychological Dangers

A brain hooked on opioids is a mess. Opioid dependency can cause several psychological symptoms including insomnia, hypersomnia, anxiety, depression, mood swings and more. These symptoms can exist both while on opiates and during withdrawal.

Criminal Dangers

Opioids are controlled substances. Though more courts are now sending opioid addicts to rehab instead of lockup, there are still many judicial consequences that can result from opioid addiction. Unlawful possession or distribution are felonies and could easily result in several years of jail time. Opioid abuse also causes many users to do things they wouldn’t normally do including theft and prostitution. Opioid abuse is never on the right side of the law.

Fighting Opioid Addiction

The opioid crisis has affected several thousand individuals, friends, and families across the country and touches all walks of life. Luckily treatment professionals and addiction experts have made a goal of stopping the opioid crisis with well-researched therapies and proper medical treatment.

Modern treatment facilities use carefully controlled and tested tapering methods along with counseling, education, and more to help treat opioid addicts in a safe, controlled, and comfortable environment. Meeting your opioid addiction head-on will be one of the toughest challenges you’ll ever face, but recovery is much more attainable with the help of professional treatment.

If you or a loved one needs help battling their opioid addiction, treatment facilities are there to help. Simply pick up the phone or get online to start the path to a joyous and free life.


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