Are Opioids and Opiates Different?

Opioid vs Opiate

Are Opioids and Opiates Different?

Despite the media coverage of the opioid epidemic our country has found itself fighting during the past few decades, there is still a steep climb for a lot of us in educating ourselves on what exactly opioids are.

Sometimes I read about opioids and sometimes I read about opiates. Are they the same thing?

It is not uncommon to read about opioids and opiates and understand the words as being used interchangeably. While that isn’t always completely wrong, it can be misunderstood.

“Opioids” is the overarching name for any substance that attaches itself to opioid receptors in your brain and helps with things pain. Opiates do the same thing, but there is a significant difference that must be considered before simply calling these two things the same thing.

Just keep this in mind — all opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates.

The Opioid Epidemic in the United States

Despite the two things being different, they both have caused a lot of heartbreak and pain in the United States. We often hear about the opioid epidemic and not about the opiate epidemic. Why is this?

In the opinion of most, opiates should be considered a subgroup that falls under the blanket of opioids as a whole. So to avoid confusion, opiates are included within opioid overdose and addiction statistics.

That said, from 1999 to 2019, we lost more than half a million lives in this country to opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

During that time, the charts show a sharp increase in more recent years. According to the Massachusetts Department of Health, more than 1,000 Bay Staters died of opioid overdose in the first half of 2021.

What Is an Opioid?

As stated briefly earlier, opioids are the substances that attach to opioid receptors in the brain and positively affect signals your body and brain send between each other with regard to pain and pleasure.

Opioids come in three key categories:

  • Natural
  • Synthetic
  • Semi-synthetic

This class of drugs includes many substances you hear and read about frequently, drugs heroin, oxycodone (brand name OxyContin), codeine, morphine, and hydrocodone (brand names Zohydro ER or, when mixed with acetaminophen, Vicodin) are all opioids. These substances range from illegal drugs to medications frequently prescribed by doctors across the country.

It can be hard to fully grasp the wide range of drugs that are all opioids.

Synthetic opioids are entirely manmade. While opioids can be completely created from plants from the Earth, synthetic opioids are created without the use of plants at all.

These lab-created synthetic opioids include commonly prescribed drugs Tramadol and even one of the drugs utilized in medication-assisted treatment, methadone.

Fentanyl is also considered a synthetic opioid. It has very limited medical applications for extreme pain and is consumed considerably more frequently in recreational/illegal forms.

Semi-synthetic opioids are drugs that are partially made from natural plants and partially manmade. After extracting the active ingredient from the plants, there is lab manipulation to create a drug that has the desired effects. Hydrocodone, oxycodone, and heroin are all examples of semi-synthetic opioids.

The category of natural opioids takes us right into our section about opiates.

What Are Opiates?

Opiates, as we mentioned earlier, are a subgroup of the overarching drug class known as opioids. While synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids are at least partially manmade, opiates are natural and created (extracted) from poppy plants.

Opium, morphine, and codeine are all commonly known opiates that are prescribed by doctors throughout the world.

All of these drugs come from the poppy plant. The poppy is a flower grown around many areas of the world for three reasons.

  1. Eating (poppy seeds)
  2. Producing Opium for pharmaceutical use
  3. Producing alkaloids, which are also used pharmaceutically

Consuming Opioids Safely

Opioids, while given nearly entirely bad publicity due to the commonality of misuse and addiction, can and will truly help thousands (if not millions) of people in any given year. Prescription opioids are generally safe when taken for a short time and as directed by a doctor.

Again, opioids can be, and often are, misused. Due to the “feel-good” and pain-blocking effects of opioids, they can be taken recreationally or excessively and have addiction potential, regardless of why they’re taken.

If you feel you may be turning a corner into dependency or addiction to opioids, it may be time to reach out for help.

Opioid Addiction Treatment

As we continue to battle through the opioid epidemic together in the United States, the need for treatment continues to grow.

When starting treatment for opiate addiction or addiction to any opioid, it’s important to begin with inpatient detoxification. As you battle back against the dependency and addiction you have, your mind and body go into an intense period of panic.

During this time, it is normal to have general discomfort and intense cravings to return to misusing the opioid that first landed you in detox. It is important to have a dedicated and quick medical team around you to assist with any needs throughout this process, which lasts upwards of a week. At Vertava Health, we can help make the detox process as comfortable as possible.

Following detox, outpatient and inpatient programs are both acceptable forms of treatment to step into depending on the length of addiction and other factors family and work life.

In outpatient treatment, it is key to find a program within driving distance to provide you with good results without being too much of a time commitment.

In inpatient rehab, you must be prepared to completely step away from the commitments of work and social life to focus on the ly month-long stay inside the facility.

During this time, it is still best to have contact with your family and friends if possible.

Treatment should include a mix of evidence-based treatments one-on-one counseling and group therapy. The best programs will also include a mix of alternative therapies exercise and life skills classes.

Call Vertava Health – Massachusetts Today

At Vertava Health – Massachusetts, our number one commitment is to you and your future. We work every day to provide you with the knowledge and power to take with you into your best future. We also work to help those battling addiction and/or mental health disorders at our facility in Cummington.

If you or a loved one is battling an opioid use disorder, give us a call at (844) 906-0978 and let us give you more information about how there is hope for a happier and healthier future.


  • What makes an opiate an opiate?

Opiates are naturally created. Poppy plants are grown from the Earth, and opiates are extracted from those plants. Examples of opiates are opium, morphine, and codeine.

  • What are opioid examples?

Opioids are the substances that attach to opioid receptors in the brain and positively affect signals your body and brain send between each other with regard to pain and pleasure. They can come in natural, semi-synthetic, and fully synthetic forms.

Examples include heroin, oxycodone. morphine, opium, hydrocodone, and codeine.


Opiates vs. Opioids: What’s the Difference?

Are Opioids and Opiates Different?

If you or someone you love is in need of treatment for opioid addiction, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the difference between opiates versus opioids. This article is a good place to start, including definitions, key differences, and a brief explanation of opioid addiction today.

Opiates Defined

The term “opiates” is defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as “natural opioids, such as heroin, morphine, and codeine”. Basically, this means that opiates refer to substances whose chemical components are made by nature, not by artificial means. 

These organic substances are derived from the poppy plant and include opium, codeine, and morphine. Opiates bind to the opioid receptors in the nerve system and in the brain.

Opioids Defined

The term “opioids”, on the other hand, is a term that generally includes all substances derived from the opium poppy plants, whether those be synthetically made or a combination of the substance found in nature and synthetically made (called “semisynthetic”). These substances also bind to the opioid receptors in the nerve system and in the brain.

Why are “Opiates” and “Opioids” Used Interchangeably?

The terms “opioid” and “opiate” are oftentimes used interchangeably. The main difference between the two terms is how they are made – either derived from the poppy plant or created in a lab.

However, there is a general consensus from the professional medical community that the terms refer to the same thing – a class of drugs that is potentially dangerous that can produce pain relief, slowed respiration and heart rate, and euphoria. Most agree that the term “opioid” is used more often in scientific literature and within the medical community.

Drug Classifications

The CDC has several classifications for opioids, including natural opioid analgesics (opiates), semi-synthetic opioid analgesics (oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone), methadone, and synthetic opioid analgesics (tramadol and fentanyl). 

Opiates derived from organic sources include opium, morphine, codeine, and heroin.

Prescription Opioids

Prescription opioids are those that are given by a doctor to a patient. The most commonly prescribed opioids are methadone, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.

Doctors prescribe these medications for pain relief, such as for patients after surgeries, procedures, or for patients with conditions that cause chronic pain, such as cancer.

However, prescription opioids can be highly addictive, even if a medical professional recommended their use.

Illegal Opioids

Heroin is an illegal opioid made from morphine. If a patient becomes addicted to prescription opioids and then has difficulty obtaining those prescription drugs, they might purchase heroin as a result of their addiction. In fact, research has shown that misuse of prescription pain medicines such as Oxycontin and Vicodin may lead to heroin usage.

Since heroin is illegal, it is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means that heroin can have unknown additives that can be extremely harmful to the body and potentially lead to death.

Opioid Addiction

You might have heard the term “opioid epidemic”. This refers to the alarming increase in opioid addiction that has occurred in the United States. The rate of deaths caused by opioid overdoses continues to rise in this country, whether those be overdoses of prescription opioids, or illegal opioids, or opiates.

There was a sharp uptick in the number of prescriptions given for opioids in the 1990s before their highly addictive properties were well understood. This caused an alarming amount of new opioid addictions as well as overdose-related deaths, which continues today.

Why are opioids and opiates so addictive? The answer lies in science: we know that there are opioid receptors within the body.

When opioids or opiates are introduced into the system, not only are pain receptors blocked, leading to a reduction in pain, a chemical called dopamine is released in large amounts.

Dopamine can produce feelings of pleasure, leading the person using the opioid to want to experience this sensation more than once.

Withdrawal symptoms from opioid or opiate usage can be severely debilitating, causing many users to fail when they attempt to quit using.

Seeking Treatment for Addiction

Whether you or a loved one is addicted to opiates or opioids, there is no one proven way to get treatment that works for everyone.

Treatment for addiction must take into account each individual’s strengths, weaknesses, physical health, mental health, and support systems.

The decision to get treatment for opioid or opiate addiction can be extremely frightening. A user might feel isolated, alone, or hopeless. 

The good news is that treatment for addiction has come a long way in the past fifty years, including advancements in science, new medications, and innovative therapies that can help heal anyone suffering from addiction.

If you are struggling with opioid addiction – or any sort of substance addiction – the team at Integrative Life Center will meet you where you are.

We create individualized treatment programs with protocols that are suited to your specific needs. 


What is The Difference Between Opioids & Opiates?

Are Opioids and Opiates Different?

One of the most common problems doctors see every day are patients in need of pain relief. They are usually in the kind of pain that an over-the-counter medication will not relieve and are in need of a doctor’s recommendation or prescribing pen to experience the relief they need to operate their lives as normal.

Unfortunately, the over-prescribing of opiates and opioids in America to treat pain has thrust our nation into an epidemic of silent addiction and it is time to understand what these medications are, what they do inside the body and why so many are addicted.

What are Opiates and Opioids?

Opiates are chemicals that are derived from the poppy plant and activate the bodies opioid receptors found in the brain giving a ‘feel good’ sensation.

An opioid is a name originally used to describe the synthetic chemicals which either activate, partially activate, block or do a combination of these three actions on different subtypes of the opioid receptors.

Today, the term opioid is often used to include both natural opiates, derived from the poppy plant heroin and morphine, and synthetic chemicals oxycodone and fentanyl. The term opioid may also refer to opioid receptor antagonists naloxone and naltrexone and to partial agonists buprenorphine.

How do Opiate and Opioids Work Inside the Body?

Opiates mimic the effect of beta-endorphin only with a much greater potency. Beta-endorphin is the bodies’ natural opioid receptor activator. When these opioid receptors are activated it results in the release of the pleasure-producing neurotransmitter, dopamine.

Normally this process compels us to strive for things that are good for our survival drinking water when we are thirsty or eating when we are hungry. Even the motivation to avoid painful situations before they occur is driven by this process.

Beta-endorphin is nature’s pleasure hormone when things are going well for our survival, opiates and opioids are a chemical trick.

Synthetic opioids can be designed to have different effects on different opioid receptors in the body and have different potencies. Opioids can be engineered to activate some opioid receptors subtypes with different strengths or to block certain receptors and activate others.

For example, Fentanyl works morphine as it binds to the brain’s opioid mu receptor, but is 100 times more potent. Buprenorphine weakly activates the mu receptor and it also blocks the kappa receptor. (Both Mu and Kappa are opioid receptors that occur naturally in the body.) This is why Buprenorphine is known as a partial agonist.

Buprenorphine has a ceiling effect on its activation of the opioid mu receptor. It is dose dependent only until it hits a certain level of plasma concentration and then it stops giving significant increases in reward with each dose.

While the ceiling effect is not absolute, it does tend to reduce the abuse potential when buprenorphine is administered as directed in the opioid tolerate patient. Other synthetic opioids, naloxone and naltrexone, can occupy the opioid receptors but do not activate it and create no reward.

They will also block the effects of other opioids and opiates rendering them ineffective. This reversal effect of antagonist (blockers) on agonist (activators) is what creates the lifesaving effects of naloxone. In short, synthetic opioids allow scientists to create a much more sophisticated and specific approach to the manipulation of the bodies opioid receptor system.

How does Addiction to Opiates and Opioids Occur?

Pain (both physical and emotional) is the bodies most important defense mechanism. It drives us away from harm and destruction. Pain constantly tells us “don’t do that, it’s bad for you.

” Pleasure (physical and emotional) is also important. Pleasure compels us to do certain things that are important to our survival.

Under normal conditions, our balance of pain and pleasure is determined by our circumstances or the way we perceive that we are surviving in our environment.

There are about a hundred chemicals known to scientist that trick the bodies known pain and pleasure circuits creating a false sense of pleasure. When opioids create this sense of pleasure over time the brain will try to reset its baseline setting.

This is the way of sensing pain even though the person is trying to trick their senses into a perception that their circumstances are better than they are. This effect is called tolerance and results in the need for higher and higher doses in order to achieve the same effect.

The problem becomes further complicated by the fact that when the drug’s effect wears off, the pain and pleasure balance does not go back to a balanced state. When the opioid’s effect goes away the patient’s perception of their circumstances becomes a very painful state both physically and emotionally.

Back pain seemingly does not heal, and patients become angry, depressed and apathetic. The need to use an opioid in order to feel normal is called dependence. Often the most common symptom of opioid withdrawal is physical pain.

In opioid addiction, physical withdrawal is only the tip of the iceberg. Craving becomes an all-consuming preoccupation of one’s attention. It is an unrelenting obsession to regain the balance of pain and pleasure. Craving can be divided into two categories.

The first is tonic craving which is thought to be related to plasma concentrations and receptor activation of the drug addiction. Tonic craving is a continuum of mild withdrawals. The other type of craving is known as phasic craving is related to triggers.

Triggers are environmental perceptions that remind the subconscious mind of the pleasure associated with the drug of addiction. Triggers could be people or places. They could even be smells, sounds or sites.

Brains that have been exposed to opioids over a long period of time often develop a condition of anhedonia or pleasure deafness.

Once a person’s brain becomes dependent on the drug, they cannot experience pleasure or even contentment without it. Without the drug, their world becomes a very painful and dark place.

This condition is known as chronic dysphoria or always present physical and emotional pain.

What to Remember and Know about Opiates and Opioids

Pain is important for survival. Pain compels us to avoid harm. Yet, human nature compels one to seek relief for pain and it is important to be aware of chemicals opioids that highjack and short-circuit this process. They should be used with extreme caution and for the shortest amount of time possible so the body maintains a natural, healthy balance of pleasure and pain.

(Article was written by Dr. Brent Boyett, D.O., D.M.D., Chief Medical Officer for Pathway Healthcare, a national treatment center for substance abuse and dependency.)


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