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Opioids vs. Opiates: What’s the Difference?

doctor writing with pill containers on tray

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 these two terms 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.

How Do We Define Each Word Now?

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 opiates are part of the opioid classification of drugs, not all opioids fall within the category of opiates. However, many people use either of the two terms to refer to the entire group of drugs that activate opioid receptors. The definition of each word may depend on context and the formality of the situation.

Classes of Opioids

Professionals divide opioid substances into four classes:

  • Endogenous opioids come from the body itself and include substances like endorphins.
  • Opium alkaloids such as codeine and morphine count as opiates and include opium.
  • Semi-synthetic opioids like heroin also contain opium, but the opium undergoes synthesis to create a new compound.
  • Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have synthetic components created in a laboratory.

All types of opioids pose a risk of addiction. When someone uses a prescription opioid without following directions, they run the risk of developing opioid use disorder.

What Does This Information Mean for Patients and Recovery Professionals?

Opioids and opiates both have medical uses and addictive properties. When looking at the differences among these drugs, professionals tend to look at each drug instead of its category and the patient’s history to prescribe the best option. For example, codeine and heroin count as opiates, but each substance has uses in different contexts. Regardless of the methods used to create an opioid, patients, doctors and the community need to treat the drug with care.

Getting Help From 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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