Understanding the Similarities and Differences Between Opiates and Opioids

December 21, 2020

There is an opioid epidemic and it involves opiates too. These two terms, opioids and opiates, are often used together or interchangeably when discussing the drug addiction epidemic. However, there are some subtle differences between these related substances. Both terms relate to powerful addictive substances that are ultimately derived from the opium poppy, but here, we’ll explore what makes each family of these drugs unique as well as their impact on people who are addicted to them. One thing is certain, a person addicted to either an opioid or an opiate is suffering from a potentially lethal addiction and requires high-quality addiction treatment to help them manage it to safeguard their health and well-being.

All Opiates Are Opioids, but Not Vice Versa

Confused about the difference between opiates and opioids? Think of opioids more of a general umbrella term for drugs derived from the opium poppy or synthesized from a drug derived from the opium poppy. An opiate, conversely, has a more narrow definition. These are drugs that are derived from naturally occurring opium compounds that are present in poppy plants. The National Institute on Drug Abuse classifies all drugs that activate on the brain’s opiate receptors as opioids regardless of how they’re derived or produced--naturally or synthetically.

What Are Opiates?

Whereas opioids refer to drugs that are derived naturally from the opium poppy or synthetically from opiate drugs or that contain opium alkaloid compounds, opiates are natural derivatives. Think of opiates as compounds that are naturally occurring in opium poppies. Within the opium extracted from the poppy, there are naturally present chemical compounds. Some of these are drugs we know quite well today like morphine and codeine. Opiates, historically and presently, play a vital role in the pharmacological arena, helping to substantially reduce pain and other health symptoms present in various medical conditions. However, abusing these drugs can also lead to powerful forms of substance addiction.

What Are Opioids?

Opioid is a broader term than opiate. Traditionally, opioids are classed as narcotic analgesics that, at least in part, are synthetic and not found in nature. However, many medical practitioners and researchers refer to any drug derived naturally or synthetically from the opium poppy or a compound from the opium poppy as an opioid. Some common examples of opioids include heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. Even legal opioids are highly addictive and, even when prescribed for medical reasons, can pave a path to addiction, especially when used on a chronic basis.

Does the Difference in Terms Matter?

For most people, knowing the nuances between these terms may not have a substantial effect on their understanding of opiates or opioids in the context of addiction. They all act on the opiate receptors in the brain and can cause profoundly powerful addictions governed by both psychological compulsions and physical cravings to use. However, the differences are important to clinicians and researchers in the medical field because their production and individual properties affect how they may be prescribed or why they’re illegal, as in the case with heroin.

Why Are Some Opiates and Opioids Medically Useful While Others Are Not?

The fact is, many drugs derived naturally or made synthetically from the opium poppy or its compounds are medically useful--and especially useful for treating pain. However, heroin is an opioid that is synthesized from the drug morphine, but serves no legal medicinal purpose. And, because of the euphoria it produces and highly addictive properties, it is among the most dangerous and powerful of addictive drugs.However, even when opioids or opiates are prescribed for a sound medical reason, danger is present. Taking too much--even slightly more in some cases--can lead to overdose. While clinicians are tasked to monitor their patients’ use of these drugs closely, patients can still become addicted.

What Makes Opioids and Opiates So Dangerous?

All opiates and opioids are dangerous because they affect an area of the brain that controls our respiratory functions. So, while their action eases pain, induces sleep, or causes feelings of well-being and euphoria, it can also suppress breathing to the point that breathing stops. This is the nature of an opioid overdose.These drugs also have a high risk for abuse and addiction development. The longer a person uses these drugs, the greater the risk for developing a physical dependency and then an addiction. Once a person has developed an addiction to an opioid, there is no cure other than abstinence.

Opioid Addiction Explained

There are many factors that influence a person’s development of an opioid addiction. Some people can become addicted, as in the case of heroin, after just a couple uses. Addiction signifies multiple dependencies. So, a person addicted to a drug like heroin, Fentanyl, or morphine is not only physically dependent, but also psychologically and behaviorally dependent. That’s why medical detox is not enough to manage a substance addiction.An opioid addiction is powerful because these drugs can cause a person to become physically dependent quite quickly. Becoming physically dependent leaves a person psychologically vulnerable to dependency too. And the reverse can happen. Someone one may feel psychologically dependent on using these drugs before they become physically dependent. However, once the addiction sets in, multiple dependencies have been established.

Treatment for Opioid Addiction

To successfully manage an opioid addiction, individuals need treatment that addresses each dependency. Medical detox only targets the physical dependency. This is invariably the first step in the recovery process. It is the process by which a person is slowly weaned from the addictive substance. It can take a few days or even a couple weeks depending on the person’s chemistry, the drug in question, and how long they’ve been addicted to the drug. Too often, people get physically ‘clean’ from the drug in rehab and mistakenly think they’re free from its powerful compulsions to use.After detox, people need treatment that targets the physical and behavioral aspects of their addiction, or relapse is inevitable. In fact, even with treatment, opioid relapse statistics tend to be high, signifying that more treatment is needed. During post-detox addiction treatment, individuals learn to identify the triggers (often negative emotions or trauma) that led them to abuse opioids in the first place. Working with their treatment providers, they develop strategies for coping with their triggers and stress and to develop new habits that support healthy and sober living.The Last Resort Recovery Center is a substance abuse treatment facility that helps men successfully manage their condition to achieve lasting recovery. The drug rehab center’s opiate addiction specialists treat the mind, body, and the spirit, helping men transform their lives to safeguard their health and well-being.

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