Opioids vs Opiates: Why These Classes of Drugs Are Different…and Also the Same

Opioids vs opiates: They're different, but both are addictive, as this photo of a hand reaching out to some pills illustrates.Shape

Opioids vs opiates: How are they different? Our blog explores the crucial differences and similarities between these two addictive substances.

Opioids vs opiates...what's the difference?

Understanding the difference between opioids and opiates can be crucial for anyone dealing with addiction or supporting a loved one through recovery. While both terms are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings that are important to recognize.

In this article, we'll clarify these differences, helping you gain a deeper understanding of the substances involved. Whether you're seeking knowledge to aid in your recovery journey or to better support someone you care about, this information can empower you to make more informed decisions and foster a more compassionate approach to treatment and recovery.

Opioids vs Opiates: What Are Opioids?

Opioids are drugs that interact with the body's opioid receptors. These receptors are primarily present in the brain, spinal cord, & other regions of the nervous system. These drugs are known for their substantial analgesic effects & are frequently used for pain relief.

Opioids can depress the central nervous system, resulting in pain relief, sleepiness, and euphoria. They attach to opioid receptors, decreasing pain signal transmission and altering pain perception.

Opioids vs Opiates: Types Of Opioids

Opioids are categorized into numerous categories based on their source and chemical composition. Following are some examples of common opioids.

Natural Opioids (Opiates)

Natural opioids – also called opiates – are derived from the opium poppy plant.


Morphine is one of the most powerful natural opioids. It is derived directly from the opium poppy plant. It is commonly used in medical settings to relieve severe pain. This can be post-operative pain or cancer pain.


Codeine is another natural opioid derived from the opium poppy plant. It has a lower potency than morphine. It is typically used in cough treatments to relieve mild to moderate pain.

Semi-Synthetic Opioids


Oxycodone is a semi-synthetic opioid produced from thebaine. Thebaine is an alkaloid present in the opium poppy. It is often used to treat moderate to severe pain. It is available in various formulations, including immediate-release and extended-release formulations.


Hydrocodone is a semi-synthetic opioid derived from codeine. Codeine is also frequently used with non-opioid analgesics such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. It is used to treat mild to moderately severe pain.

Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids are basically chemicals that replicate the effects of natural opioids but are created in a laboratory setting. These drugs are designed to interact with the body's opioid receptors in a similar way to substances like morphine or heroin.

However, synthetic opioids can be much more potent and have a higher risk of overdose due to their strength. Some common examples of synthetic opioids include fentanyl, tramadol, and methadone.

It is important to use caution when using synthetic opioids, as they can be highly addictive and dangerous if not taken as directed by a healthcare professional.


Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid. It is considered to be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It is mostly used in medical settings to treat severe pain, especially during surgical procedures. It comes in various forms, such as transdermal patches, tablets, and injectable formulations.


Methadone is a synthetic opioid with long-lasting effects. It is often utilized in opioid addiction treatment programs. It reduces withdrawal symptoms and decreases cravings, allowing people to stabilize and work toward recovery.

Other Synthetic Opioids


While tramadol is a synthetic opioid, it works differently than other opioids. It functions as a mild opioid receptor agonist. It also inhibits norepinephrine and serotonin reuptake. Tramadol is prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain.

Opioids vs Opiates: What Are Opiates?

Opiates are natural opioids that are extracted directly from the opium poppy plant. They include drugs like morphine and codeine. These substances are found naturally in the opium poppy plant. Opiates have been used for pain relief for centuries. Opiates can be identified by their unique chemical composition and origin from the opium poppy plant.

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Types Of Opiates

Opiates can be categorized into numerous categories. Here are some common types of opiates.


Morphine is a powerful opiate chemical found naturally in the opium poppy plant. It is considered the prototypical opiate. Morphie serves as the foundation for the development of other opioids. Morphine is commonly used in medical settings to treat severe pain. Especially in post-operative or palliative care for cancer patients.


Codeine is a milder opiate derived from the opium poppy plant. It is frequently used as a cough suppressant and a mild to moderate analgesic. Codeine is commonly included in prescription cough syrups and pain relievers, usually combined with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.


Another opiate alkaloid originating from the opium poppy plant is thebaine. It has minimal analgesic properties, unlike morphine and codeine. However, it is a precursor in manufacturing other semi-synthetic opioids such as oxycodone & hydrocodone.

Opioids vs Opiates: Which Is More Effective for Pain Relief?

The effectiveness of opioids vs. opiates for pain treatment is determined by various factors. This includes the type and severity of pain, individual patient characteristics, and the opioid or opiate used. While both opioids and opiates can relieve pain, several factors must be considered.


Synthetic opioids have the potential to be more powerful than natural opiates. Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are far more potent than natural opiates such as morphine. The potency of synthetic opioids may be advantageous in severe pain cases for efficient pain control.

Individual Response

Individuals can respond differently to pain medications. What works well for one individual may not work so well for another. It is necessary to customize the opioid or opiate choice to the patient's specific needs and individual reactions.

Pain Type

Certain opioids or opiates may be more effective for certain types of pain. For example, the potency of synthetic opioids may be required for severe acute pain, such as post-surgical pain. Milder or chronic pain, on the other hand, may be efficiently treated with natural opiates.

Side Effects

Sedation, constipation, nausea, and respiratory depression are all possible side effects of opioids and opiates. These side effects can differ based on the drug. When choosing the right opioid or opiate, balance pain relief and side effects.

Expertise in Healthcare Providers

The healthcare provider's knowledge and ability to treat pain and prescribe opioids or opiates are essential in determining their effectiveness. Based on the individual patient's needs, an expert practitioner can guide the prescription selection and dose.

Opioids vs Opiates: Side Effects

Due to their comparable modes of action, opiates and opioids can cause similar side effects. Following are some of the most common side effects of opioids & opiates.

Respiratory Depression

Opioids and opiates both have the potential to produce respiratory depression, which is characterized by slower or shallow breathing. It can cause respiratory arrest or even death in severe situations.

Drowsiness and Sedation

Sedation and drowsiness can be caused by opioids and opiates, resulting in decreased awareness, reduced coordination, and slower reaction times.

Vomiting and Nausea

In some people, opioids and opiates can produce nausea and vomiting. These side effects might range from minor discomfort to more serious symptoms.


Opioids and opiates typically cause constipation by decreasing gastrointestinal tract movement. This effect can be severe and lasting, requiring further action for relief.

Skin Rash and Itching

Both opioids and opiates can cause itching, often accompanied by a skin rash. This can be irritating, but it is usually not cause for alarm unless it becomes severe or persistent.

Hormonal Imbalances

Prolonged use of opioids and opiates can disturb the body's normal hormonal balance. This can have side effects, including lower testosterone levels in males and irregular menstrual cycles in women.

Dependence and Addiction

Opioids and opiates have a high dependence and addiction potential. Continued usage can result in physical and psychological dependence, requiring careful supervision and even addiction treatment.


Opioids and opiates can cause dizziness or lightheadedness. Be cautious while getting up from a sitting or lying to avoid falls or accidents.

Cognitive Impairment

While taking opioids or opiates, some people may have a cognitive impairment, such as trouble concentrating, disorientation, or memory issues.

Reduced Libido and Sexual Dysfunction

Opioids and opiates can affect sexual function and lower libido. Reduced sexual desire, trouble obtaining or keeping an erection (in men), or diminished lubrication or orgasmic difficulties (in women) constitute common issues.


Excessive sweating, often known as opioid-induced hyperhidrosis, is a common side effect of opioids and opiates. This can be irritating and cause discomfort.

Mood Swings

Opioids and opiates can occasionally produce mood changes ranging from euphoria to irritation or even dysphoria, feeling down or depressed.

Reduced Respiratory Drive in Newborns

Opioids and opiates can pass the placenta and harm the developing fetus if consumed during pregnancy. This can cause neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in newborns, characterized by withdrawal symptoms after birth.

Risk of Overdose

Misuse or overuse of opioids and opiates can result in severe overdose. Overdose causes significant fatigue and respiratory depression and can lead to coma or death.

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Opioids vs Opiates: How Long Do These Drugs Stay In Your System?

How long do these drugs stay in your system? Here is a general timeline for how long opioids and opiates may be detectable in different body parts.

  • Blood: Opioids are typically detectable in the blood for up to 24 hours after the last use.

  • Urine: Opioids can be detected in urine for 1 to 3 days after use. Some opioids may be detectable for more extended periods.

  • Saliva: Opioids can be detected in saliva for up to 1 to 4 days after the last use.

  • Hair: Opioids can be detected in hair follicles for approximately 90 days or more, depending on hair growth.

Opioids vs Opiates: Which Ones Are More Addictive?

Opioids and opiates both have addictive properties, making them substances that can lead to dependence and misuse. It is important to understand the potential risks associated with both types of drugs and to use them only as prescribed by a healthcare provider.

Addiction to opioids and opiates can have serious consequences, including physical and psychological dependence, overdose, and withdrawal symptoms. Seeking help from medical professionals and support services is crucial for individuals struggling with addiction to these substances.

The link between opioid or opiate use and dependence is severe and complex. Following are some key points to understand.

Increased Tolerance

The body can develop tolerance to opioids or opiates after repeated usage, requiring greater doses to achieve the same effects. This tolerance may increase the risk of dependency.

Physical Dependency

Prolonged or excessive opioid or opiate use can result in physical dependence. The body adjusts to the presence of the drugs, and withdrawing or reducing the amount might cause withdrawal symptoms such as muscle pains, nausea, sleeplessness, and anxiety.

Psychological Dependency

Opioid or opiate use can also lead to psychological dependence, in which a person has a strong desire or need for the substance. Psychological factors, such as the necessity of pain relief or the experience of emotional distress, can contribute to the development of dependence.


Addiction develops from dependence and involves a compulsive pattern of substance seeking and use despite adverse effects. Addiction is a chronic brain condition marked by an inability to manage drug use and a strong desire to get and consume opioids or opiates.

Risk Factors

A personal or family history of substance use problems, genetic vulnerability, underlying mental health conditions, and external factors can increase the chance of developing dependency or addiction.

Treatment and Support

Overcoming opioid or opiate addiction requires expert treatment and support. All options include medication-assisted treatment (MAT), counseling, behavioral treatments, support groups, and comprehensive addiction treatment programs.

Prevention and Education

Public education about the risks of opioid or opiate use, proper pain management procedures, and careful prescribing are essential in reducing the risk of dependence and addiction.

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Our admissions coordinators are standing by 24/7 to answer your questions, provide guidance, and schedule an initial assessment. Let us help you determine if our programs are the right fit to meet your needs.


Taking the Next Step Toward Recovery

Understanding the differences between opioids and opiates is an important step in addressing addiction. At The Forge Recovery Center, we are dedicated to helping you or your loved one navigate the path to recovery. Our compassionate and experienced team is here to provide the support and treatment necessary to overcome addiction and regain control of your life.

Reach out to us today, and let us guide you toward a healthier, more hopeful future. Your journey to recovery starts with understanding, and we are here to help every step of the way.

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Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

July 7, 2024

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