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What’s the Difference Between Opioids and Opiates?

Man questioning opioids and opiate differences

While researching opioid use disorder, you may see both the terms “opioid” and “opiate” used by professionals. These words refer to two categories of narcotics with many similarities, but you can also find a few differences. Learn the difference between opioids and opiates and how this difference matters for the recovery community.

A History of the Terms “Opiate” and “Opioid”

Our terms for drugs change as the drugs themselves evolve. We first used the term “opiate” to refer to drugs derived from opium, a substance taken from poppies. When people began to create substances that resemble these opiates, we referred to them as “opioids.” In other words, while opiates had natural sources, opioids had synthetic sources. However, we now have different uses for each term.

Are Opiates and Opioids the Same?

While the definition for “opiate” remains the same as in the past, our conception of “opioids” has expanded. The term “opiate” still refers to substances created with opium. Meanwhile, the “opioids” category covers a broad range of drugs, including opiates.

According to the modern definition, an opioid drug activates the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors attach to opioids. Then they send signals to your mind and body related to your everyday functions. When someone takes an opioid drug, it binds to their opioid receptors, which tell the body to release endorphins. The endorphins then reduce pain and cause euphoria in some people.

While all opiates are opioids, not all opioids are opiates. Sometimes, people use these two terms interchangeably to talk about any drug that acts on opioid receptors. But it’s important to know the difference:

Classes of Opioids

man holding a binder that classifying the types of opioids

Opioid substances are grouped into four distinct classes, each with specific characteristics and implications for medical use and potential for addiction:

Endogenous Opioids

These are naturally produced in the human body and include substances like endorphins. They play a critical role in regulating pain and emotional responses, offering natural pain relief and a sense of well-being.

Opium Alkaloids (Opiates)

Derived directly from the opium poppy, these include natural compounds like codeine and morphine. Historically used for pain relief, they are known for their effective pain management properties but also carry a risk of addiction.

Semi-Synthetic Opioids

Created by modifying natural opium compounds, this class includes drugs like heroin. They are synthesized to enhance certain properties of the drug, often resulting in stronger effects and a higher potential for misuse and addiction.

Synthetic Opioids

Entirely manufactured in laboratories, these opioids, such as fentanyl, are not derived from opium. They are designed to mimic the pain-relieving effects of natural opioids but can be far more potent and risky, leading to a higher incidence of overdose and addiction.

Each class of opioids has distinct medical uses and risks. Misuse, such as not following prescription guidelines, can lead to opioid use disorder. Understanding these classes can help in making informed decisions about their use, whether for medical purposes or in recognizing the signs of misuse and addiction.

Start Your Journey with MedMark Treatment Centers

At MedMark Treatment Centers, we provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT) that relieves withdrawal symptoms to help you achieve your recovery goals. We take a holistic approach to MAT that considers the physical, emotional and social aspects of opioid use disorder. You can get more information by calling our team at 866-840-6658 or completing our online contact form.

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