Skip to main content

What is the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids?

When it comes to narcotics, you may have heard the words opiates and opioids used in discussion, on the news, or in popular media. These words likely seem as if they can be used interchangeably. However, they can not. But, what is the difference between opiates and opioids? Also, where do opiates come from?

News outlets, popular media, and people alike fail to distinguish between what is the difference between opiates and opioids accurately. To clear up the confusion, we have compiled the difference between these narcotics, their similarities, and some general facts. By the end of this article, you will know where these drugs come from, how they affect the human body, and the main differences between these similarly named substances.

What is the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids?

Many people use opiates and opioids interchangeably, but there is actually a fairly big difference between opiates and opioids. Opioids are simply an umbrella term that includes opiates as well as drugs derived from opium. You will also often see opioids referred to as narcotics. Still, opiates and opioids are not the same things, despite being in the same class of drugs. 

In general, opiates refer to opiate alkaloids that come from opiate plants. Usually, this refers to poppy plants. Opioids refer to morphine-like substances created synthetically or semi-synthetically from opiate alkaloids. 

Although opiates and opioids are related, they are not the same. They may be very similar in some cases, but they also share a number of key differences. One of the primary differences between opiates and opioids is that opiates are natural while opioids are semi-synthetic or synthetic. 

When it comes to similarities, there is one that is very common regarding opiates vs opioids. This similarity is that both opiates and opioids are highly addictive. Furthermore, both of these substances are widely abused. This is due to the high potential for misuse by them. In fact, opioid misuse in the United States is widespread. So much so that the alarming rate of opioid addiction in the U.S. is referred to as an epidemic. 

Opiates vs Opioids: What are They Used For?

Opiates and opioids are generally used to treat and manage pain. While there are differences between how opiates and opioids are derived or manufactured, they both have this in common. These drugs produce a variety of effects, but it is their ability to block pain receptors that make them useful for pain management. Often, people who are recovering from surgery or who have a chronic pain condition are prescribed opioid drugs for pain relief.

Opiates and opioids can be taken orally, injected, or even used topically depending on which drug is being prescribed. When introduced into the body, opiates and opioids bind to opioid receptors. These receptors are located in regions of the brain associated with feelings of pain. Once opiates and opioids connect with these receptors, a variety of chemical reactions happen within the body to block the perception of pain.

Where Do Opiates Come From?

Where do opiates come from? Well, as previously mentioned, opiates refer to opiate alkaloids that come from opiate plants. In other words, opiates come from “natural” plant products in Africa. 

Opiate alkaloids are opiates that are naturally occurring and are not produced by the body in opiate users. Morphine is probably the most well-known opiate alkaloid, but codeine and heroin also fall under this category.

Common Opiates

Within the category of opiates, there are a few common ones. Many of these are recognizable by name and are used for a variety of purposes. The only exception to this is heroin, which is an illicit drug. The following drugs are commonly used or prescribed opiates.


Codeine is a drug that is prescribed for the relief of moderate to severe pain. It can be prescribed by itself or in combination with other drugs. 

In some cases, codeine is used as a cough suppressant and can be found in prescription cough syrups. This is because it can suppress the part of the brain responsible for producing coughing. However, like other drugs in the narcotic class, it is highly addictive and can become habit-forming.


Morphine is another opiate commonly prescribed for pain. People often take morphine after surgery when in extreme pain. Conditions such as cancer require the strength of this medication to ease the discomfort that patients feel. 

Unfortunately, despite its efficacy in treating serious pain, morphine is highly addictive. Furthermore, when morphine is taken too frequently or in high doses, dependence can occur quickly. Additionally, morphine produces a euphoric state that often causes people to abuse it and develop morphine addictions. 


Methadone is an opiate with a long half-life and milder effects than morphine and heroin. This means that it takes longer for the drug to wear off. It also produces less intense withdrawal symptoms, making it useful in the detoxification process. Subsequently, methadone helps make rehabilitation easier by reducing cravings.


An illegal substance drug, heroin (diacetylmorphine) is one of the most commonly known opiates. Heroin is an illicit drug that is usually bought on the streets. It is highly addictive and produces opiate withdrawal symptoms that are often intense when use is discontinued.


The term opioid refers to any psychoactive chemical that resembles morphine, opium, or opiates. These drugs are included in the broader category of opioids, yet not all opioids are opiates. The term opioid includes opiates and opiate derivatives like:

  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Loperamide (Imodium)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana)
  • Methadone (Dolophine)
  • Carfentanyl/Carfentanil (Wildnil)
  • Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet)
  • Dextropropoxyphene (Darvocet-N, Darvon)
  • Fentanyl/Fentanil (Ultiva, Sublimaze, Duragesic patch)

It is important to note that many opioids can be derived from opiate plants. However, they do not necessarily come directly from plants themselves. Many opioids are totally synthetic and created in a lab. This is perhaps the biggest distinction between where do opiates come from and where do opioids come from. 

Signs of Opioid Addiction

Sometimes people who take opioids can develop a physical dependence on them. Prolonged use of opiates or opioids can result in dependence. Like other addictions, there are normally physical, emotional, and behavioral signs that indicate a person is struggling with an opioid addiction. 

Some of the signs that indicate an addiction to opioids include the following:

  • Lethargy and lack of energy
  • Buying heroin or prescription opioids illegally
  • Changes in relationships with friends and family
  • Abandoning responsibilities to use opioids instead
  • Using prescription opioids more than directed by a physician
  • Going through extreme measures to obtain or purchase opioids
  • The presence of opioid paraphernalia, such as syringes or spoons
  • Changes in mood and behavior, including depression, aggression, defensiveness, or irritability

These signs can all point towards an opioid addiction. If you recognize these signs in yourself, opioid addiction treatment can help you take your life back from the clutches of addiction. 

On the other hand, if you think someone might be struggling with a dependence on opioids, it is important not to confront them in a way that might cause them shame or embarrassment. If it is safe, instead approach your loved one with compassion and empathy to understand why they needed to turn to opioids in the first place.

The Dangers of Opioid Abuse

In addition to the differences between opiates vs opioids, it is important to know the dangers of abusing these substances. People who use opioids recreationally often do so because they produce feelings of euphoria. However, these are not the only effects on the human body when taking these drugs. Short-term use of opioids can relieve pain, but long-term use can produce the following negative side effects:

  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Depressed breathing

Dry mouth and sedation are other effects caused by opioid abuse. Furthermore, these drugs depress the central nervous system and can influence breathing patterns. In some cases, opioid addicts have died from overdoses where breathing ceased entirely. As opioid users develop a tolerance for the drug, it becomes more difficult for the respiratory system to function normally while under opioids’ effects. In fact, due to this, many opioid-related overdose deaths result from respiratory depression.

Opioid Withdrawal

A major concern regarding opioid addiction has to do with opioid withdrawal. If opioids are discontinued abruptly, opioid withdrawal symptoms can result. These symptoms are often uncomfortable and cause the individual great distress.

 Symptoms of opiate withdrawal include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Agitation
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Runny nose
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Muscle aches
  • Increased tearing
  • Abdominal cramping

Another one of opiate withdrawal’s most unpleasant symptoms is its ability to cause opioid cravings. This is due to the body becoming dependent on opioid after prolonged use, meaning that it begins to rely on opioids for natural pain relief. As a result, when individuals addicted to opioids attempt to quit using the substance. they may experience opioid cravings as their body fights against being without these substances. 

These opioid cravings are some of the main contributors towards opioid relapse. This is because such cravings can be so severe that many addicts turn back to using opioids just to stop them.

When someone experiences these kinds of opiate withdrawal symptoms after stopping opioid use, it is referred to as opiate withdrawal syndrome (OWS). Withdrawal from opioids can be very uncomfortable, but it’s not often fatal. Thankfully there are medications such as methadone available to ease the symptoms of withdrawal until an individual is ready for detoxification and rehabilitation treatment.

Recovering from Opioid Abuse and Addiction with Harmony Place

Now that the differences between opiates vs opioids are clear, concerns regarding the misuse of these substances should also be evident. If you find yourself unable to stop using or misusing opioids, we offer opioid addiction treatment here at Harmony Place. At our drug and alcohol center in Los Angeles, we offer residential and outpatient treatment to help you overcome addiction to opioids. 

In addition to a sober environment with compassionate care, we also offer a variety of therapies to help address the cause of addiction. If you’re ready to make the commitment to sobriety, contact us today. Our admissions team can help walk you through our treatment options and discuss the options that will best suit your needs.