Opiate vs. Opioid – Are they the Same?

Opiate vs. Opioid – Are they the Same

Many words tend to sound the same or look similar to each other in terms of their meanings, therefore making it easy to confuse them or use them interchangeably. Medical terms are even more difficult to understand and differentiate, especially when you lack a background in the sector.

One such mistake is differentiating between opiates and opioids – two terms that look similar and have similar effects on the body. They confuse many people, as some will refer to them as separate drugs while others use them interchangeably. Lately though, there is a tendency by people particularly politicians and journalists, to refer to them as opioids as a general term.

However, are they really that different from each other?

Similarities between the two

Human beings do not enjoy pain – this leads many to seek medical help when going through it and get medication. Sometimes, over-the-counter medicine does not give you the relief you seek, and the doctor may give you a prescription for a stronger painkiller. However, when you abuse the medication, it can lead to addiction, as well as worse consequences later such as opioid withdrawal symptoms and death.

Both opiates and opioids are similar on many levels, though slightly different. Both of them are derivatives of opium, which the poppy plant produces. Did you know that the seeds on your hamburger bun are poppy seeds, though they will not have the same effect as opium?

They both have medical uses, as they act as pain relievers. That means that a doctor may prescribe them for suppression of diarrhea, pain relief, cough suppressing, anesthesia, or even treating opiate disorders. This is due to their effects on the brain, as they block the opioid receptors, resulting in changes on how your brain perceives and processes pain – this gives the user relief, especially in extreme pain.

The interference with opioid receptors also has a side effect of a ‘high’ feeling, and the pleasure from this experience can encourage someone to consume more amounts – people can also use them illicitly, especially in the case of addictions.

So how do they work?

Both opioids and opiates change the manner that the brain perceives pain. This does not mean that the pain ends, but lessens the feeling you get when in pain.

They accomplish this by attaching themselves on molecules within the pain nerve cells of the nervous system, the opioid receptors. When they attach, the cells send signals to the brain, which are not accurately describing the severity of pain that the body is going through. The individual that has consumed the drug therefore feels less pain intensity.

The drugs will also alter the manner that the brain experiences pleasure, since the individual goes through a feeling of euphoria, then intense relaxation or drowsiness follows that feeling.

Differences between opiates and opioids

The sole difference comes in through the manufacture of the products.


The general meaning of the term within pharmacology means a substance from opium. They are mostly alkaloid compounds that you find in a specific opium poppy plant, the Papaver somniferum. They are naturally occurring, and include compounds such as morphine, thebaine, and codeine. Heroin is also within the class of naturally occurring compounds in the plant.


Although this is a more generalized term that refers to both synthetic and natural substances that bind to the opioid receptors of the brain, these are more of synthetic chemical compounds, mostly from laboratory manufacture or synthesis. Their manufacture styles vary, as some are partial derivatives of naturally occurring compounds in the opium plant. These include hydromorphones like Dilaudid, hydrocodone such as Vicodin, or oxycodones like Percocet and Oxycontin.

Others undergo complete manufacture in the laboratory, without use of natural compounds. There are more than 500 opioid molecules that the pharmaceutical industry has created, with some only for medical use (such as anesthesia during surgical operations), while some are not.

Certain opioids that are in wide distribution within the U.S. include Hydrocodone like Vicodin, Dextromethorphan – you can get these in the U.S. even without medical prescription, such as Vicks, NyQuil, TheraFlu and Robitussin; Loperamide like Imodium, Dextropropoxyphene such as Darvon and Darvocet-N, Carfentanyl such as Wildnil (for veterinary usage), Oxycodone like Percocet, Oxyxontin; Oxymorphone such as Opana, Meperidine like Demerol, Methadone like Dolophine, as well as Fentanyl such as Sublimaz, Ultiva and Duragesic patch.

Why is this distinction non-essential?

At the end of the day, these distinctions are not very helpful, since the effects of both opiates withdrawal and opioid withdrawal is the same. Another problem is opioids refers to both naturally occurring and synthetic drugs, opiates also refer to a similar thing. Scientifically, this lacks consistency and may not make sense to many people.

When studying the chemical structures of four examples of both opiates and opioids, it can become more confusing. For instance, morphine and heroin have very similar chemical structures to each other, yet morphine is technically an opiate (it comes from poppy) while heroin is both an opiate and opioid (it is also a by-product of morphine synthesis).

In addition, fentanyl has no similarity in terms of chemical structure to both heroin and morphine, yet is under opioid classification because it is synthetic. A chemist may study these chemicals and think that they do not need these classifications anyway. The general rule is all opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates.


Pain relievers are only for use in short periods, and when you use them as the doctor directs you, you have less chances of addiction. However, when your body develops a high tolerance for the drug, you need more of it to get relief from pain, therefore developing an addiction – requiring an opiate detox.

Final thoughts

Opiates and opioids are not different from each other largely, as they are derivatives of the same source – poppy seeds. It is important to remember that both of them present risks to your health when you consume them in large doses.

Editorial Team
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One Comment

  1. James says:

    Thanks for sharing this information with us, I always like to read such information regarding that topic so please keep it up and keep sharing..

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