The terms opioid and opiate are typically used interchangeably today, but there is a significant difference between the two. Although the two terms refer to different types of substances, all opioids and opiates are addictive and have a high risk of abuse. In this blog, we’ll explore the definitions of both terms and look at some examples of each. Understanding the difference between the two types of drugs can help you better understand your prescription medications and help prevent abuse, dependence, and addiction.
Table of contents
Opioid vs. Opiate: What’s the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids?
Opiates are natural substances that come from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum).1 Opium itself is extracted from the poppy and contains chemical compounds, also known as opioid alkaloids. About 20 opioid alkaloids exist in the opium plant, but there are six that occur in the largest amounts.2,3 They include:
The two most well-known opioid alkaloids are morphine and codeine, although thebaine and papaverine are also used in the drug industry.
|Examples of opiates include: |
An opioid is a substance that binds to the same opioid receptors that opiates do, but they do not occur naturally. These are known as synthetic or semi-synthetic opioids. Synthetic opioids are created by scientists in laboratories. Semi-synthetic opioids are man-made chemicals that are derived from opiates, which are found in nature. One way to think about it is that all opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates.4 In other words, opiates are a subclass of opioids.
The term “opioid” is a broad term that is used to refer to any substance that binds to opioid receptors in the brain. Most people today use the term “opioid” to refer to natural or synthetic substances that bind to these receptors.
|Examples of semi-synthetic opioids include: |
What Is the Difference Between a Narcotic and an Opioid?
Sometimes, powerful opioid or opiate medications (also known as narcotics) are prescribed by doctors to treat chronic, moderate, and severe pain. Narcotics are considered opioids but some can also be classified as opiates.
Narcotics are controlled substances in America due to their potential for misuse and addiction. These types of prescription medications include the naturally-occurring morphine and codeine as well as semi-synthetic and synthetic compounds that are derived from them.
What Are the Side Effects of Opioid Abuse?
Although there is a distinct difference between opiates and opioids, the side effects of their abuse are the same.
Short-term side effects of opioid abuse include:
- Slowed breathing
Long-term side effects of opioid abuse include:
- Physical dependence
- Opioid withdrawal
- Addiction 5,6
What Are Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms?
If a person cuts back or completely stops using opioid drugs after several weeks of heavy use, he or she may experience some uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms. These symptoms are known as opioid withdrawal. Common opioid withdrawal symptoms include:
- Watery eyes
- Muscle aches
- Runny nose
- Excessive sweating
- Stomach cramps
- Dilated pupils
How Long Does an Opioid Stay in Your System?
The rate at which opioids are metabolized depends on the person and several other factors, including age, weight, genetics, specific health problems, the purity of the drug, and how often the person uses, among many others.
The five major opioids (codeine, morphine, heroin, hydrocodone, and opium) are detectable via a drug test. Here are approximate detection times for the five major opioid drugs.
|Approximate Opioid Detection Times|
Opioids: Medical Uses and Misuse
Since opiate and opioid drugs produce a sense of relaxation and euphoria, these medications are generally prescribed for the relief of chronic, moderate, or severe pain, although some opioid drugs can also be used to treat diarrhea or cough. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), they are generally safe and effective when they are taken exactly as prescribed by a doctor but many people abuse them.8 A person might misuse a prescription opioid drug by taking it in a different way than intended, taking someone else’s prescription drugs, or taking an opioid medication with the sole purpose of getting high.
Thinking about opiates as a natural substance can be misleading. Although opiates are found in nature, that does not make them any less dangerous than synthetic or semi-synthetic opioids. All opioid drugs are highly addictive and many are frequently abused due to their euphoric and relaxing side effects. In 2017 alone, about 11.4 million people ages 12 and up misused opioid drugs in the past year.9
Prescription opioid abuse is common in the U.S. and it is primarily to blame for the rapidly increasing rate of overdose deaths, in addition to the misuse of fentanyl. In 2017, opioids were involved in 47,600 overdose deaths (67.8% of all drug overdose deaths).10
Are Opioids and Opiates Listed as Controlled Substances?
Due to the potential risks and dangers of opioid drugs, the DEA classifies them as controlled substances. Some opioid drugs may be listed under several different schedules depending on the concentration of the drug in a certain substance or its chemical form. Below is a chart with the current opioid drug scheduling, per the DEA.
|Opioid Drug Scheduling|
|Schedule II||Demerol (meperidine) |
Duragesic or Sublimaze (fentanyl)
Other hydrocodone medications
|Schedule III||Buprenex |
Other buprenorphine products
|Schedule V||Some codeine medications (e.g., Robitussin AC)|
Get Opioid Addiction Treatment Today
Opiates and opioids are highly addictive and dangerous when they are misused. If you or a loved one is struggling with opioid addiction, it’s never too late to get help. Briarwood Detox Center provides a medically-assisted opioid and opiate detox program in Austin that is specifically designed to meet the individual needs of each client.