Opioid vs. Opiate

The term opiate refers to drugs that are naturally found in the opium plant. The term opioid describes man-made drugs that are chemically similar to opiates. Today, many people use the word opioid to refer to natural opiates and man-made drugs that are similar to opiates.
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Opiates are naturally occurring chemicals found in the opium plant. They’re also known as opium alkaloids. More than 20 opiates are found in opium, but six occur in large amounts. Of those six, only four are used by the medical industry: morphine, codeine, thebaine and papaverine.

Morphine and codeine are probably the most well-known opiates. They’re two of the oldest pain medications, and doctors still prescribe them today. Thebaine isn’t used as a pain medication in its natural state. It’s converted into other chemicals, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, which are used in the popular medications Percocet and Vicodin, respectively.

Oxycodone and hydrocodone are examples of semi-synthetic opioids. Semi-synthetic opioids are man-made chemicals that are derived from naturally occurring opiates. Diacetylmorphine, more commonly known as heroin, is another example of a semi-synthetic opioid. Heroin is manufactured by boiling morphine and acetic anhydride.

Scientists have also created drugs in laboratories that mimic the effects of opiates but are not derived from the opium poppy. These manufactured, or synthesized, drugs are known as synthetic opioids. Examples include methadone, fentanyl and meperidine.

Examples of Opiates, Semi-Synthetic Opioids & Synthetic Opioids

The all-encompassing term opioid can be used to refer to drugs that fall into three categories: opiates, semi-synthetic opioids and synthetic opioids.

Examples of opioids include:

The term narcotic also refers to opioids. The word was once used to describe any drug that relieved pain and caused relaxation, but today it is more commonly used to refer to opioids, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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Endogenous Opioids and Endorphins

Opiates, semi-synthetic opioids and synthetic opioids relieve pain and cause other effects by interacting with parts of the brain called receptors. The brain has several types of receptors. Those that interact with opioids are named opioid receptors.

Receptors affect a variety of functions in the body, including how we feel pain, how we experience reward or pleasure, and how we breathe.

The brain naturally creates chemicals that interact with opioid receptors. These chemicals are called endogenous opioids. The three main types of endogenous opioids are called endorphins, enkephalins and dynorphins.

Endorphins are sometimes called the natural opiates of the body, but they shouldn’t be confused with opiates that naturally occur in the plant opium.

The body responds to pain by releasing endorphins, but it releases these natural pain-relieving chemicals for a short period of time. That’s why you may not feel immediate pain from an injury, but you feel pain minutes or hours after it occurs. The brain also releases endorphins in response to exercise and stress.

The body doesn’t release endogenous opioids in high enough doses to cause an overdose or to relieve severe pain. That’s why doctors use prescription opioids to relieve severe pain. When used in therapeutic doses, prescription opioids relieve pain and cause minor side effects.

When misused, opioids overwhelm opioid receptors in the brain. This can cause extreme relaxation and calm, but it also causes unpleasant side effects, including very slow breathing. Opioid overdoses occur when large doses of opioids tell the brain to stop breathing.

The term opioid can be used to refer to a number of different types of drugs or chemicals that interact with opioid receptors in the body. “Opiate” usually refers to chemicals found in the opium plant. Semi-synthetic opioids are chemicals derived from opiates. Synthetic opioids are chemicals made in labs. The term endogenous opioid usually refers to endorphins, which are chemicals created in the body.

Medical Disclaimer: DrugRehab.com aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer, DrugRehab.com
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.

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