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  • Opioids Vs. Opiates: Understanding The Difference

    woman holding two different types of prescription drugs opioids or opiates

    The opioid epidemic has swept the nation, including a surge of opioid overdose deaths, and many people in the United States know someone who dealt with or is currently dealing with opioid addiction. 

    While there is much information readily available on opioids and how they affect the body, people get confused by the difference between opioids and opiates. 

    Many sources use the two terms interchangeably, while others differentiate between the two. Both terms refer to prescription drugs that are central nervous system depressants and used for pain relief.

    Here, we’ll take a look at the difference between opioids and opiates, which substances fall into each category, and what you can do if you or a loved one needs help for opiate/opioid addiction.

    What’s the Difference Between Opioids & Opiates?

    While you’ll often hear the terms used interchangeably, there’s a key difference between the two:

    • opiates are derived from the poppy plant and come from substances that occur naturally
    • the term opioids refers to all drugs in this class: those that are created synthetically in a lab and those that are derived naturally from the opium poppy plant 

    This means that opiates are a part of the opioid drug category, but not all opioids are part of the opiate category. 

    Terms You Need To Know

    • opioidsynthetic, semisynthetic, and natural drugs that work with the body’s opioid receptors to change the way the body and mind process mild to severe pain
    • opiatenatural drugs derived from the poppy plant that work with the body’s opioid receptors to change the way the body and mind process pain
    • opioid analgesics—prescription opioids used for pain relief following surgery or associated with certain health conditions (a highly addictive class of drugs)
    • opioid use disorder—the medical term for problems with opioid use categorized by dependency on opioids, increased tolerance, social problems, and other substance abuse issues that cause significant stress

    Drugs Classified As Opioids

    Hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydromorphone (Dilaudid,) and oxymorphone (Opana) are all semi-synthetic opioids, meaning that while they’re partially derived from the poppy plant, they still use lab-created components to create a final product. 

    Pethidine (brand name Demerol), methadone, and fentanyl are completely created in a lab, making them fully synthetic. These tend to be the strongest opioids, and have an extremely high potential for addiction, misuse, and other harmful side effects like an overdose.

    If you notice any opioid overdose signs, please contact emergency services. Naloxone, or Narcan, can reverse the deadly effects of an overdose if administered in time. 

    Drugs Classified As Opiates

    Morphine and codeine are both classified as opiates. These drugs come from the unripe seed of the poppy plant. 

    While they’re processed and manufactured, their pain-relieving effects originate from the poppy plant’s natural opiates, leaving them in a different class of drugs than opioids that are completely manufactured in a lab. 

    These drugs tend to be less addictive, but they are also not as effective as synthetic opioids for pain relief. 

    Do Opioids & Opiates Affect The Brain Differently?

    Opiates and opioids both work to bind to the brain’s opioid receptors. These areas of the brain affect the way that the body interprets pain. This is why these medications are called painkillers. 

    Natural opiates tend to work well to control pain and to mitigate certain physical symptoms, such as coughing. Synthetic opioids tend to be much stronger, and may be more likely to cause opioid use disorder. 

    It’s important for medical professionals to carefully consider which class of prescription drugs makes the most sense for patients recovering from painful surgeries or dealing with other health conditions (such as managing the effects of chemotherapy).

    How Pain Medications Affect The Brain

    Normally, the brain produces its own class of natural opioids that respond to pain. Endorphins, for example, can help the body to process pain in a way that’s less distressing.

    The brain responds to opioids that come from other sources, like pain medication, differently than it does to its own, natural opioid-like chemicals. 

    Recent studies show that opioid drugs are able to activate areas of the brain that natural opioids cannot reach, explaining why it can be so difficult for people to stop using opioids.

    After the brain experiences opioids from outside the body, it can be impossible for the body’s natural opioids to replicate the experience. This can lead to feelings of chronic pain when a person stops using pain medications, which can quickly turn into opioid use disorder.

    Medication-Assisted Treatment For Opioid Addiction

    At Ark Behavioral Health, we understand how hard it can be to break through opioid use disorder, and we’re here to help. 

    We offer medication-assisted treatment to address opioid abuse, which includes:

    • FDA-approved medications like buprenorphine or naltrexone to reduce opioid dependence, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms
    • ​behavioral therapy to change your thinking and attitudes about opioid misuse
    • additional addiction treatment services like peer support groups and counseling

    To learn more about our treatment centers that address both addiction and overall mental health, please contact us today.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Centers for Disease Control & Prevention(CDC) - Commonly Used Terms | Drug Overdose
    John Hopkins Medicine - What Are Opioids?
    National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) - Opioids
    University of California San Francisco - Body’s 'Natural Opioids' Affect Brain Cells Much Differently than Morphine

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on October 6, 2020
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