What is the Difference between Opioids and Opiates?

What is the Difference between Opioids and Opiates?

Opioids and opiates sound similar, but are they really the same thing?  Not quite.  Opioids refer to any substance that binds to opioid receptors in the brain. Opioid is a more broad term, as it can be used for either natural or man-made substances.  Opiates only refer to natural substances from the flowering opium poppy. Both have the same effects and are used as painkillers. 


Opioid is a general term for any substance that interacts with opium brain receptors in the brain. Opioids includes synthetic (man-made) and natural substances.  They are prescribed painkillers, but can lead to dangerous long term effects.
Difference between Opioids and Opiates

Some well-known opioids include:

  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
  • Hydromorphone
  • Methadone
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana®)


Technically, an opiate is a type of opioid. They interact the same way with the mind and body, and cause the same effects. The major difference is that opiates only come derived from the natural opium poppy plant. An opiate is not man-made. However, this does not mean opiates are not dangerous.  People falsely think that opiates are safer because they are natural, but opiates are just as addictive as man-made opioids.  Opiates, like opioids, have short term effects of relaxed or happy feelings and pain relief. However, long term, opiates have harmful side effects.

Some well-known opiates include:

  • Codeine
  • Heroin (It is important to know that heroin is illegal).
  • Morphine

Similarities to Know

Both classes of drugs are typically prescribed for pain management and cause people to feel a euphoric high. These drugs can also cause dependency and withdrawal. Opioids and opiates are both known for being highly addictive.  Misuse of this drug can lead to various medical issues.

Tolerance, Dependence, Withdrawal and Addiction

The longer a person uses a prescription opioid, the higher a dose they may need feel its effects. This is called tolerance, and can even happen when carefully following doctor directions.

Drug dependence with opioids occur when the brain adapts so much to the drug that it needs the drug to function normally. 

Opioid withdrawal is the body’s natural reaction when someone stops or decreases opioid intake. This can happen even when the doctor’s directions are followed, so it is important to both start and stop this prescription with medical supervision. Withdrawal can be mild to severe.

Opioid withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • muscle aches
  • restlessness
  • anxiety
  • lacrimation (eyes tearing up)
  • runny nose
  • excessive sweating
  • inability to sleep
  • yawning very often
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal cramping
  • goose bumps on the skin
  • nausea and vomiting
  • dilated pupils and possibly blurry vision
  • rapid heartbeat
  • high blood pressure

Opioids and opiates are known for being addictive.  Opioid addiction is a disease, in which a person compulsively seeks the drug, regardless of any negative consequences. These addiction issues can lead to other medical risks including:

  • Heart and lung failure
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Shallow breathing
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Permanent neurological damage
  • Coma
  • Death

Almost 70% of drug overdose deaths involved an opioid.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Understanding the Epidemic, an average of 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

Although opiates and opioids are slightly different, they both can cause potentially overwhelming side effects. If you or someone you know is showing with opiate or opioid withdrawal or addiction symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.  Please seek the guidance of a physician or therapist for any questions or concerns about addiction.  Treatment is possible and could be the best choice someone ever makes!  With the support of trained professionals, someone can safely and successfully move forward to a healthy lifestyle.


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