There’s no denying it, the United States’ opioid crisis is out of control.
In 2018 alone, 46,802 people died from an opioid overdose, which accounted for almost 70% of drug overdose deaths that year. Most of those deaths were caused by synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
But what about opiates? While you may have heard the terms “opioids” and “opiates” used interchangeably, they are distinctly different. Here, we’ll discuss opiates vs. opioids, what they’re used for, how addiction happens, and what to do if you’re addicted to them.
Opiates vs. Opioids
The word “opioid” is used as an umbrella term covering both opioids and opiates—the class of drugs derived from the opium poppy. No matter how you refer to them, both are controlled substances and used in modern-day medicine for pain relief.
Opioids work by altering the chemistry of the brain by rapidly binding to opioid receptors and blocking pain pathways and signals. This group of drugs is known for its relaxing effects and even making a person feel “high”. This is because opioids (and opiates) trigger the brain to release large amounts of the neurotransmitter called dopamine, or the “feel-good” hormone.
Let’s get down to the distinct differences between opiates vs. opioids.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids refer to all-natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic opioids. However, it’s become increasingly more common to use the word “opioid” to describe both opioids and opiates.
What Are Opiates?
Opiates are drugs that are derived from the naturally occurring opium compounds in the opium poppy plant.
There are three groups of opioids and they’re all structurally different. Some prescription opioids are made from the opium poppy, and others are created in laboratories by pharmacologists who mimic the chemical structure. In terms of opiates vs. opioids, the groups are as follows:
- Opiates: Are naturally occurring agents derived from the opium poppy and include morphine, codeine, and thebaine.
- Semi-synthetic: This group is synthesized from naturally occurring opium and is structurally very similar to Group 1. Semi-synthetic opioids include hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone, buprenorphine, and street drug heroin.
- Synthetic: This group is lab-engineered and are not naturally occurring substances. Group 3 agents have some structural commonalities to Groups 1 and 2 and include fentanyl, methadone, meperidine, tramadol, and propoxyphene.
What Are Opioids Used For?
Every day, people use prescription opioids such as fentanyl, hydrocodone, and oxycodone to treat acute and chronic pain. Not only are these opioids extremely effective in pain management, but they’re also overprescribed and highly addictive.
But what are opiates used for? Opiate drugs such as morphine are commonly used in healthcare and clinical settings (not so much as a prescription drug you’d take home with you), for mild to moderate pain.
Here are a few reasons why someone could be prescribed an opioid:
- Recovery from surgery
- Acute pain (fractured bone, car accident, appendicitis)
- Chronic back pain
- Neurogenic pain
The difficult thing about opioid use is that the longer someone uses them, that feeling of euphoria is replicated over and over. This trains the brain to want more of the drug, leading to dependence, tolerance, and the need for higher amounts to produce the same effects. And so, begins the process of addiction.
Physical illness or injury is one of the main reasons for the ongoing opioid epidemic in the U.S. Out of all the patients prescribed opioid drugs for chronic pain, 21-29% end up misusing them. Furthermore, data shows that women are more likely to have chronic pain, receive prescriptions for pain relievers at higher doses, and use them for longer periods of time than men—causing women to become dependent on prescription opioids faster than men.
Bottom line: opioid use comes with risks and shouldn’t be taken lightly—especially if you’ve suffered from substance use disorder in the past. If you’re in recovery from substance abuse and get injured, have an honest conversation with your doctor about pain management. They will decide the right course of treatment to help you heal and keep you safe from relapse.
In many cases, a person can become addicted to prescription opioids first, and subsequently turn to illicit opioids like heroin to continue an addiction once prescriptions run out. National data on heroin reports that nearly 80% of heroin users first started abusing prescription opioids before heroin. It’s clear that prescription opioids can serve as a gateway to illicit opioid use.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if someone is using opiates vs. opioids, as either can addictive. In any case, it’s the “feel good” effects that make for a slippery slope, which can lead a person into the throes of a perilous addiction.
Take the First Step in Recovery
We hope you have a better understanding of opiates vs. opioids as well as more information on the dangerous effects of opioid and opiate addiction. If you’re suffering from opioid addiction and are ready to take the first step in recovery, AION Health Group is here to help.
We offer patients a comprehensive approach to recovery. Choose from a wide range of drug addiction treatment programs through one of our three, Florida-based treatment facilities.