Difference Between Opiate and Opioid

Discover the difference between opiate vs. opioid, the risks involved, and available treatment options in this article.

Understanding the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids

Opioids are naturally occurring or synthetic compounds that bind to opioid receptors in the body. When opioid receptors are activated, they have an analgesic effect resulting in pain relief. Medically, prescription opioid drugs are the most effective and extensively utilized medications in treating severe pain.
Opioids are a classification consisting of all drugs or substances that can bind to opioid receptors. There are naturally-occurring opioids, called opiates, that are derived from the opium poppy plant and semi-synthetic and synthetic opioids that are made in a lab. Nonetheless, opioids usually refer to all opioids—natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic.


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Does One Carry More Risks Than the Other?

When comparing opiate vs. opioid, both come with risks and dangerous side effects. For example, natural and synthetic opioids can cause drowsiness, slower breathing and heart rate, constipation, mental clouding, infertility, and reduced libido. In addition, both have a very high addictive potential and pose significant risks for overdose.

However, when comparing naturally occurring opiates and opioids synthesized in labs, synthetic opioids pose a higher risk because they can be available in higher potencies, making them increasingly more dangerous. In 2019, over thirty-six thousand deaths were caused by synthetic opioids, which is the highest among the different types of opioids.1

What Are Opiates?

Opiates are naturally derived opioids from the opium plant, Papaver somniferum. These include the following.


Opium is a highly addictive natural narcotic extracted from the poppy plant’s unripe seed pod. It is the main source for natural and semi-synthetic opioid drugs. Opium has a euphoric effect on the brain, and the intensity depends on the dose.


Morphine is a pain medication derived from opium. Morphine is the most extensively accepted opioid analgesic and acts directly on the nervous system to relieve pain. Morphine can be administered orally or intravenously (IV; through the vein), and is widely abused.


Codeine can be produced from opium or morphine. It is a low-effective opiate for severe pain; hence it is commonly prescribed for mild-to-moderate pain and cough alleviation. It is odorless, bitter-tasting, and often combined with aspirin when administered for pain relief. Codeine can come in a tablet, capsule, or liquid.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids include natural opioids (opiates), semi-synthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids. The difference between natural and synthetic drugs is that natural drugs are produced naturally without necessary human intervention.
Synthetic drugs, on the other hand, are produced through chemical synthesis. Whether legal or illicit, all opioid drugs are very effective painkillers. Opioids are sometimes referred to as narcotics, a drug class that reduces pain and induces sleep (narcosis).

Semi-Synthetic Opioids

Unlike synthetic opioids created entirely in the laboratory, semi-synthetic opioids are lab-made drugs that contain natural opiates.


Oxycodone treats moderate to severe pain, including surgical or cancer-related pain. It is highly addictive and a commonly abused drug.


Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid derived from morphine. It is an illicit drug of abuse.


Hydrocodone can be used as a pain reliever and cough suppressant. It is often administered orally and may cause lightheadedness and dizziness.


Hydromorphone is used to treat moderate to severe acute pain and severe chronic pain. It can be administered orally and injected systemically.


Oxymorphone is a potent opioid narcotic analgesic for treating severe pain.

Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids are synthesized in a lab without the use of plant matter.


Methadone is a synthetic opioid used for chronic pain and opiate addiction treatment. Methadone helps treat pain by changing the way the brain and the nervous system respond to pain. It is available by prescription for adults aged eighteen years and over.


Fentanyl is estimated to be about fifty times stronger than heroin and one hundred times stronger than morphine. Doctors usually prescribe fentanyl in cases of severe pains like after surgery and cancer cases; however, fentanyl is sometimes illicitly distributed among hard drug chains for its heroin-like effect. 2


Tramadol is a synthetic opioid that can effectively relieve moderate to severe pain in adults.

What Effects Do Opioids Have on the Body?

When opioids enter the body, they bind to opioid receptors in the nervous system with a much stronger and longer bond than endorphins (naturally released painkillers in the body). This enables opioids to reduce pain more effectively than endorphins, making them a popular option for pain management.
When ingested, opioids create a range of effects on mood, breathing, digestion, and even blood pressure.

Psychological Effects

Opioids trigger dopamine release, which is linked to a feeling of happiness and the euphoria that comes with consuming opioids. Opioids also inhibit the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter in the brain and spinal cord that increases alertness and helps to mediate aggressive behaviors.
Opioids can also cause:
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Paranoia

Psychological Effects

At higher doses, opioids can affect the heart and breathing rates, bringing them down to dangerous levels. In addition, opioids can cause:
  • Sweating
  • Respiratory depression
  • Muscle aches
  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding

Opioid Addiction

With all opioids, it is integral to know that they are highly addictive. A national survey found that more than two million Americans misuse opioids every day. 3
Opioid and opiate drugs bind to opioid receptors and send signals to the brain to block pain while producing a sense of euphoria. When opioids are used without the presence of pain, the reward and pleasure stimulated by opioid receptors can increase the compulsion for repeated use.

What Causes Opioid Addiction?

Misuse of opioids can generate receptor downregulation in the brain, causing the need for higher amounts of the drug to create the same effect. This results in drug tolerance, dependency, and addiction. Tolerance and dependency can still occur despite opioid and opiate drugs usually being prescribed by qualified medical personnel. As a result, prescription opioid medication is the leading cause of opioid abuse, addiction, and overdose.
Research and statistics show that an estimated 21% to 29% of people prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, with 8% to 12% developing an opioid use disorder. Additionally, nearly 80% of those who use heroin first misused prescription opioids. 4

What Is Opioid Withdrawal?

Opioid withdrawal is characterized by experiencing an onset of symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, due to sudden cessation or reduction of opioids.

What Are the Complications of Opioid Withdrawal?

Opioids can cause severe withdrawal symptoms, especially when abruptly stopped in use. While taking opioids, the opioid receptors inhibit the release of noradrenaline, a chemical in the brain that stimulates wakefulness, muscle tone, blood pressure, and respiration.
Once opioid use stops, noradrenaline levels are no longer inhibited, causing an influx of this chemical in the body. This throws the body off balance and causes withdrawal symptoms such as muscle aches, anxiety, jitters, and vomiting.

Why is Detox Important to Withdrawal?

Although withdrawal symptoms are temporary, they can be debilitating and bring about illness for days or even weeks. Therefore, during opioid addiction treatment, detoxification should be carried out by trained healthcare professionals to monitor the effects and prevent severe withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

Opioid withdrawal symptoms include:
  • Myalgia (muscle pain)
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dilated pupils
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive yawning
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting

List of Opioid Combination Products

Opioids are commonly combined with various products to treat different conditions and symptoms. These products will be detailed below.


Acetaminophen is a non-opioid medication in the NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) group used to treat fever and mild to moderate pain. Caffeine is a natural stimulant that stimulates the brain and nervous system, helping people stay alert amidst tiredness. Dihydrocodeine is an opioid that can treat moderate to severe pain. Patients can use this combination to treat moderate to severe pains.


A combination of acetaminophen and codeine treats mild to moderate pain. Codeine works as a cough suppressant by blocking signals from the brain and spinal cord. Acetaminophen gets rid of the pain by blocking the production of certain chemicals and anti-inflammatory agents in the brain.


Dihydrocodeine is used with aspirin and caffeine for severe pains. However, patients should not take dihydrocodeine with other painkillers containing codeine. Aspirin is used to treat fever and relieve mild to moderate pain; it should not be given to children under sixteen or used alongside alcoholic beverages.


Hydrocodone and acetaminophen treat moderate to severe pain and are often orally administered. Hydrocodone is a narcotic analgesic that acts on the central nervous system to reduce pain.


Oxycodone is used for the treatment of moderate to severe pain. It works in the brain to change how the body responds to pain. Acetaminophen helps in the treatment of fever and mild to moderate pain. Together, they can be used to relieve moderate to severe pain.


Aspirin can relieve fever and mild to moderate pain. Oxycodone works in the brain to change how the body feels about pain. Patients can use this combination to relieve severe pain that requires opioid treatment.


Ibuprofen is a non-opioid anti-inflammatory drug used for treating pain, fever, and inflammation. It helps relieve mild to moderate pain. Patients can use the combination of oxycodone and ibuprofen to treat acute and chronic pain.


Oxycodone works in the brain to change how the body feels and reacts to pain. Naltrexone is used to primarily manage opioid use disorder by reducing the cravings of the euphoria associated with opioid addiction. Naltrexone should not be used alongside opioids, as patients using naltrexone may have reduced tolerance to opioids. This combination of drugs is not advisable or safe.


Pentazocine is an opioid used to relieve moderate to severe pain by acting on the central nervous system. It can be used alongside general anesthetic before surgery. Naloxone works to block the effect of opioids on the brain and restore breathing; it also helps reverse an opioid overdose. Patients can use this combination to treat moderate to severe pain and prevent opioid misuse.


Tramadol is a sleep-inducing synthetic opioid drug that can relieve severe pain, including pain after surgery. This combination of drugs treats moderate to severe pain for up to five days; tramadol treats pain by working on the nervous system, while acetaminophen helps decrease fever.

Contact Concise Recovery Today

For more information on opiates and opioids and how to seek treatment for opioid abuse, please reach out to us at Concise Recovery today.