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Narcotics Vs. Opioids | Is There A Difference?

Published on March 8, 2021
Narcotics Vs. Opioids | Is There A Difference?

A common misconception is that narcotics refers to all illegal drugs. In the United States, however, narcotics only refer to opioid drugs. Opioids include natural opiates, semi-synthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids. 

What Are Narcotics?

Narcotics are used to refer to a wide range of drugs that dull the senses and relieve pain. The modern definition of narcotic in the United States only refers to opioid drugs. 

What Are Opioids?

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), opioid drugs include natural opiates, semi-synthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids. 

Natural Opiates

Opiates come from the opium poppy plant and include opium and its derivatives, including codeine and morphine. Codeine is often used to treat cough or mild to moderate pain. Morphine is a powerful opiate only used to treat severe pain. 

Semi-Synthetic Opioids

Semi-synthetic opioids are created in labs but come from natural opiates, like morphine and codeine.

Semi-synthetic opioid drugs include:

  • heroin
  • oxycodone
  • hydrocodone
  • hydromorphone

Sometimes these drugs are combined with acetaminophen (Tylenol), which is an over-the-counter pain reliever and fever reducer. 

Combination prescription painkillers include the following brand name medications:

  • Lortab 
  • Lorcet 
  • Percocet 
  • Norco 
  • Vicodin 

Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids are entirely man-made and produce effects similar to opiates. 

Synthetic opioids include:

  • fentanyl (Duragesic)
  • carfentanil
  • meperidine (Demerol)
  • methadone

Fentanyl is an extremely powerful opioid and up to 100 times more potent than morphine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), synthetic opioids contributed to more than 31,000 overdose deaths in 2018.

How Do Opioids Affect The Brain & Body?

Prescription opioid analgesics are most commonly used to treat moderate to severe pain or chronic pain when other treatments are ineffective. 

Opioids bind to and activate opioid receptors in the central nervous system (CNS) to relieve pain. Opioids also cause an increase of dopamine in the brain, which often results in a sense of euphoria. 

Opioids may also cause the following side-effects:

  • drowsiness
  • constipation
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • itchiness
  • impaired judgment

Opioid Overdose

Opioids slow the central nervous system, which can result in a dangerous condition known as respiratory depression. Respiratory depression is characterized by slow breathing and can be fatal if left untreated. 

Be aware of the following signs of opioid overdose:

  • pinpoint pupils
  • difficulty breathing
  • loss of consciousness
  • gurgling sounds
  • limp body
  • bluish or cold skin

Symptoms of an opioid overdose can result in brain damage or death if untreated. If you notice any signs of overdose, seek medical attention immediately. 

Administer naloxone, if available, while you wait for help to arrive. Naloxone is a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. 

Opioid Withdrawal

Long-term use of narcotics can result in dependence, which means you may experience withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop your medication. Opioid withdrawal can be treated in a detox facility, which will provide 24/7 medical supervision and monitoring. 

Symptoms of opioid withdrawal may include:

  • intense cravings
  • yawning
  • insomnia
  • restlessness
  • mood swings
  • diarrhea
  • muscle aches

The severity and length of withdrawal may depend on how much and how long you have taken opioids. 

Are Narcotics Addictive?

Opioid drugs are controlled substances in the United States because of their high risk for abuse and dependence. Opioids affect the reward center of the brain, which may reinforce frequent use. 

Long-term use of opioids can lead to opioid use disorder (OUD), also known as addiction. Addiction is a complex disease of the brain characterized by compulsive drug use despite negative consequences. 

Addiction can have negative effects on your mental and physical health and quality of life. With comprehensive treatment, people can achieve long-term recovery and peace of mind. 

Although every treatment plan is different, professional treatment programs often include the following services: 

  • behavioral therapy
  • group therapy 
  • peer support groups 
  • holistic activities (yoga and meditation)

Beginning your recovery in a treatment center can help you learn more about your addiction and build healthy coping skills. 

If you would like more information about opioid addiction treatment options, please reach out to us today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) - Synthetic Opioid Overdose Data
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - Narcotics (Opioids)
National Institute On Drug Abuse And Addiction (NIDA) - Prescription Opioids DrugFacts
National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - Pain Medications- Narcotics

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