Opiates vs. Opioids: What’s the Difference?

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June 21, 2017

There are so many words out there that sound the same or look the same that it is so easy to use them interchangeably. Tomato, tomato (it doesn’t really work the same on the Internet); there, their they’re; effect, affect. It can be even more difficult with medical terminology if you do not have a background in it. One common “mistake” is opiates vs. opioids. They look the same, they sound similar, but there is a fundamental difference between the two. However, it is not always wrong to use them interchangeably.

Opiates vs. Opioids

First, we will start with opiates. Opiates are the all-natural side of things — they are what is derived from opium. Did you know that opium is found in the poppy plant? The seeds on your hamburger bun won’t have the same effect as the drug, but it comes from the same seed. Not to get too technical, but the compounds found in this plant alter the way the brain processes pain and gives a sense of relief if someone is in extreme pain. It can also create a “high” feeling that may intrigue people to continue consuming opiates. Types of opiates include morphine, codeine, heroin, opium, and thebaine.

Opioids were once classified as “…synthetic opiates only (drugs created to emulate opium, however different chemically).” 1 This still holds true, but now it has been accepted that “opioids” can be used to describe natural and synthetic versions. Opioids can be viewed as prescription medicines such as oxymorphone, hydromorphone, hydrocodone and oxycodone; and, heroin or morphine. Both synthetic and natural opioids can cause users to experience withdrawal symptoms.

Is There a Difference, Then?

There is a difference between the two, chemically, but it is okay to say “opioid” whether it is natural or not. The commonality between the two is that either one can become addictive. If they are abused or taken consistently for long periods of time, the brain can build a tolerance causing someone to take more in order to get the same effect. It is important to follow your doctor’s instructions if you are prescribed pain pills and to notify the doctor if you do not feel comfortable taking them anymore.

Frequently Asked Questions About Opioids and Opiates: Getting Answers

What About Heroin?

While most opioids are either natural or synthetic, heroin is considered a semi-synthetic opioid. It’s made from morphine, which is natural, but that morphine has been chemically processed. Heroin is a Schedule I narcotic under U.S. Federal laws and has no medicinal value. It also has a high risk of abuse.

Are Opioids Safe When Prescribed by a Doctor?

Opioids can be highly effective pain relievers. In general, these types of medications can be safe as long as the doctor’s instructions are followed and they’re used for only a short period of time. However, because these drugs produce euphoria along with their pain-relieving characteristics, they have a high risk of misuse. Some patients take opioids in larger quantities than prescribed or without a doctor’s prescription.

Does Being Natural Make Opiates Less Harmful?

The answer to this question is no. While opiates are naturally derived from the flowering opium poppy plant, that doesn’t mean they’re any less harmful than synthetic opioids. Both opiates and opioids are highly addictive and frequently misused.

Are Opioids and Opiates Deadly?

The hard truth is that both opioids and opiates are highly addictive and their use can have life-threatening consequences. When dependency to these drugs gets out of control, a fatal overdose is a real risk. At this point, medication-assisted treatment and counseling can save lives.

How Long Do Opiates and Opioids Stay in Your System?

How long an opioid or opiate stays in the system varies between drugs. Generally, saliva tests can detect opioids for up to 48 hours, while urine tests can find traces of these drugs for about seven days.

Is There a Difference Between Opioids and Narcotics?

Technically, the term “narcotic” is used for any drug that relieves pain and causes relaxation. That said, today, most people use “narcotics” to refer exclusively to opioids.

What Are Some of the Signs of an Opioid or Opiate Addiction?

Addiction to opioids or opiates is a disease. Its most distinguishing characteristic is the compulsive use of these drugs despite their negative consequences. While one or two symptoms may not indicate an addiction, multiple warning signs should not be ignored and could suggest that you need professional treatment. Some of the main symptoms to look out for include:

  • Feeling unable to quit
  • Using opioids, prescription or otherwise, for non-medical reasons
  • Getting opioids from others or purchasing them on the street to self-medicate
  • Needing to increase your dosage because of an increased tolerance
  • Manipulating pain medication so that it can be smoked or injected
  • Isolating yourself or hiding from family and friends
  • Experiencing financial, work or legal difficulties

Reach out to AppleGate Recovery for More Information

No matter where you are in your recovery journey, everyone needs a helping hand at times. If you’re struggling with your addiction, please reach out to us. At AppleGate Recovery, we’re here to help you live a healthy, free life on your own terms!

There are many options for you should you have an addiction, and it is never too late to get help. AppleGate Recovery has locations throughout the United States specializing in medication-assisted treatment with the use of buprenorphine and Suboxone®. This type of treatment will have little interference with your daily life and can help you start a new one. Learn how you can get started on the road to recovery today.


Last Updated: April 24, 2020