Opiates vs. Opioids: What’s the Difference?

Medically Reviewed

Since the increase in opioid overdose deaths in the past few years, you may have become more aware of opioid prescriptions and illegal drugs. As journalists, researchers, doctors, and politicians discuss the opioid epidemic and addiction, you may have heard several similar words being used. Opium, opiates, and opioids are similar words that refer to different things. Learn the differences between these terms and become more informed about this important and infamous class of drugs.

What Is An Opioid?

An opioid is a general term for any chemical that binds to opioid receptors and as agonists. That means they can attach to opioid receptors in your body and activate them. Opioid receptors are responsible for several functions in your body, like regulating and managing bowel movements. Opioids can be found in nature and made in labs. In fact, they can even be found in the human body. The opioids that occur naturally in your body are called endorphins, which is a combination of the phrase “endogenous morphine.” It is so named because endorphins are very similar to morphine, which is one of the first opioids that researchers studied more than a century ago.

Because chemicals like morphine and other opioids are so similar to endorphins, they can easily bind to your receptors and do the job your endorphins are designed to do. However, most prescription opioids and illicit opioids like heroin are stronger than your endorphins. This makes them an effective medication for treating moderate-to-severe pain that may otherwise be difficult for you to deal with naturally. However, strong opioids can also cause sedation, euphoria, and intoxicating effects. Heavy doses can also cause a dangerous overdose.

Opioids work by slowing down your nervous system and blocking pain signals. However, if you take too much, it can slow down the vital functions of your nervous system like breathing and heart rate. Fatal opioid overdoses are often caused by oxygen deprivation caused by respiratory depression.

What Is An Opiate?

Opiates are specific opioids that occur in nature without human intervention. Typically, the term “opiates” refers to the chemicals that are found in opium poppy plants, which is where opiates were first discovered. These plants contain several active chemicals, but the most widely known are codeine and morphine. The chemicals are secreted from the plant in a milk-like substance that’s often called opium. Both of these opiates are widely used in prescription drugs all over the world.

Opiates can also be used to make semi-synthetic opioids, which are no longer considered opiates. Semi-synthetic opioids include hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone, which are all popular in pain relief medications. Heroin is also a semi-synthetic opioid. Researchers today can recreate opioids completely synthetically, that is, without the use of natural opiates.

Synthetic opioids have the potential to be incredibly powerful. Drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil are many times stronger than morphine. Illicit distribution of these powerful synthetic opioids has led to a spike in overdose deaths in the past few years.

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