Opiates vs. Opioids: What’s the Difference?

Opiates vs Opioids, both are commonly confused; while they share some similarities, there are important differences between opioids and opiates. Opiates and opioids both come from the poppy plant and can be used to achieve a sense of euphoria through their effects on the central nervous system. However, while opiates are naturally derived from this seed, opioids are completely synthetic in nature. 

In addition to this difference is the fact that opiates can lead to opioid dependence when abused or taken for too long, but an overdose of opioids is much more likely to kill its user due to respiratory failure caused by a lack of oxygen intake rather than a lethal buildup of chemicals in the body.

Although there has been a lot of conversation about the deadly effects of drugs like fentanyl, which is classified as an opioid, opiates can be equally as deadly if taken in large enough doses. However, when it come to opiates vs opioids and how they both affect the body, the difference is significant and accounts for why one is much more likely to result in death than the other.

What Defines Opiates vs Opioids?


Opiates are derived from opium, which comes from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants found mostly in Southeast Asia. The active ingredient in opiates is morphine, which has been used for centuries as a highly effective pain reliever that works by binding to receptors located throughout the central nervous system involved with pain modulation.

However, it also binds to various regions of white matter associated with reward pathways, causing feelings of euphoria. This can lead to dependence because this surge of dopamine causes individuals to want more and more, but repeated use in larger quantities can result in addiction.

In short, opioids are a group of drugs that mimic the body’s natural painkillers. They work by binding to opioid receptors which reduces activity in pain-transmitting nerve cells and causes a decrease in one’s perception of pain, therefore acting as an analgesic. 

Morphine is a type of opioid, but not all opioids contain morphine. Opioids have been around since the 1800s and have been used to treat acute and chronic pain symptoms. In recent years, physicians have become increasingly liberal with their prescriptions because they can help manage intense or chronic pain symptoms associated with illnesses such as cancer or arthritis.

However, if taken for too long, they can lead to addiction, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms when stopping — making them a high-risk medication. Over the past decade, opioid abuse has become an alarming issue in the US due to its availability on the street or in alternative forms such as heroin. Many Americans are unaware of the dangers associated with prolonged opioid use. If taken too often or if abused over time, one can experience severe adverse effects on health including comas or death.


Opioids include substances that produce morphine-like activity by acting at opioid receptor sites within the CNS (central nervous system). A few examples of opioids are:

  • Oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Fentanyl
  • Vicoprofen (a combination of ibuprofen, and hydrocodone)
  • Methadone

Synthetic opioids are prescription medications that act on opioid receptor sites within the CNS to reduce the feeling of pain in patients. Some opioids, such as opium or heroin, can be abused because they cause pleasant feelings in users. However, when taken over a long period of time, opioids become extremely dangerous because it is easy to build up a tolerance to them which in turn leads to dependence. 

Once an individual becomes dependent on opioids their withdrawal symptoms are typically characterized by:

  • Depression
  • Jitteriness
  • Stomach cramping
  • Muscle aches
  • Watery eyes/nose/throat
  • Bone aches
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Cold flashes with goosebumps (“cold”)
  • Kicking movements (“shakes” or “kicks”)

To understand what an opioid is, first you must know what an opiate is. When it comes to opiates vs opioids, an opiate is any drug derived from opium, which comes from the poppy plant. Morphine is perhaps the most well-known example of an opioid drug, but codeine also falls under this category. 

What are the Effects of Opiates on the Body?

The effects of opiates on the body and the brain include:

  • Pain relief
  • Reduced anxiety and stress
  • Feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and calm
  • Sedation
  • Nausea reduction 

When these opioids attach themselves to their respective receptors, they reduce the effects of nerve signals sent throughout your body. This reduces sensations of pain, makes you feel less stressed or anxious, reduces depression symptoms, and often provides people with feelings of deep relaxation or sleepiness. 

Some drugs classified as opiates are:

  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Poppy tea (which is brewed from Poppy plant pods)
  • Heroin
  • Pure opium

Opiates vs. Opioids Addiction Rates

In 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the United States died from opioid-involved overdoses. Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them. The likelihood of developing an opioid use disorder depends on many factors, including the length of time a person is prescribed to take opioids for acute pain, and the length of time that people continue taking opioids (whether as prescribed or misused).

A recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 932,364 people died in the U.S. from fatal overdoses from 1999 through 2020. As a result, young people ages 15-24 saw the biggest year-to-year increase of fatal overdoses with deaths up 49% in 2020.

Signs of an Opioid Overdose

Witnessing an opioid overdose can be terrifying. The combination of other substances (such as alcohol) and opioids could lead to emergency situations. The following are signs of an opioid overdose: 

  • Breathing is slow and shallow, or not there at all
  • Lips and fingernails may be blue in color rather than pink
  • Pinpoint pupils (black dots in the center of the eyes) 
  • No response to outside stimulation
  • The person is choking or gurgling due to a loss of coordination between the brain and the muscles involved with breathing

Revitalize at North Jersey Rehabs

If you’re experiencing the fallout of opioid use, then it’s time for your recovery to begin. The hard side effects and long-term complications from opiates can leave you in ruins. Addiction treatment serves as the lifeboat in the sea of uncertainty and chronic pain. Revitalize your healing process through North Jersey Rehabs. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, contact one of our facilities today.


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