Opiates vs. Opioids: What’s the Difference?

Medically Reviewed

When reading about drugs like heroin, and fentanyl, or prescription drugs, you may read the term opioid or opiate. We understand that these may be confusing since they are used frequently, and in some cases, incorrectly. You may wonder why there are two different terms to describe the same drug, which are essentially all the same.

Any substance that is classified under opioid and opiate is a chemical compound, and it interacts with distinct receptors in our body. These drugs produce effects, which include pain relief, cough relief, dulled sense, constipation, slowed respiration, and heart rate, as well as euphoria. So what is the difference?

All of these substances are dangerous, and they have the potential to cause fatal overdoses. Unfortunately, if you don’t overdose when trying some of these drugs, they have a high potential to be abused, which can lead to addiction.

Defining Opiates

The term opioid and opiate derive from the opium poppy. Opium is a distinct substance that comes from the poppy plant, and the flowers have been cultivated on a mass scale for thousands of years to collect the seed pods, which are then dried to make the drug. It has been exploited for its medicinal properties, such as treating cough and diarrhea, pain relief, and inducing sleep. Unfortunately, it also causes an intense high.

The chemical substances that produce these recreational and medicinal effects are known as opium alkaloids, and these are commonly referred to as opiates. Opiates are viewed as natural compounds that are found in opium. There are three main opium alkaloids that are used to synthesize these medicinal compounds, and they include:

  • Morphine: Morphine is an alkaloid that is most commonly found in opium. It has been compounded from opium and is most often used for pain relief. While the drug is used to manage pain, it’s essential in deriving other semisynthetic medications, such as hydromorphone. Heroin is another drug that comes from morphine, and the two share similar chemical characteristics.
  • Codeine: Although there are lesser concentrations, codeine is another crucial opium alkaloid used to derive semisynthetic compounds. It’s used for pain relief and is a common ingredient in cough syrups.
  • Thebaine: Thebaine is a toxic opium alkaloid, but it is used to manufacture oxycodone and hydrocodone. It is typically removed from the mix due to its toxicity after its synthesized.

Defining Opioids

Opioids are any compounds that act on opioid receptors in our body. These receptors are proteins in the spinal cord, brain, and digestive tract that interact with compounds our bodies produce naturally. Then there are endogenous opioids, which are not made in the body but are consumed, and act on the same receptors. The term opioid includes any compounds derived from opium alkaloids that act on receptors or other synthetic compounds that act on opioid receptors.

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