Opiate vs. Opioid: What You Need to Know

While subtle, the distinction between opioids and opiates is significant. Read on to learn more about opiate vs. opioids here.

The prevalence of drugs that affect our brain’s opioid receptors is rampant. You may have heard of the “opioid crisis” or “opiate epidemic” that’s causing so many people to lose their livelihoods.

But what do the terms “opiate” and “opioid” mean? Is there even a difference?

We’re going to explore those two terms in this article, giving you some insight into what they mean and why they’re important. Additionally, we’ll talk a little bit about what these drugs are and how they’re used.

So, what’s the difference between opiates and opioids? Let’s take a look.

Opiate vs Opioid: What’s the Difference?

It’s easy to see why the confusion over these two terms exists. They’re so similar and their meanings are so closely related that people often use the terms interchangeably without a second thought.

In some cases, we’ll see how a few terms have two meanings and force them to fall into both the opiate and opioid categories. Terms have changed over time, shifting meaning and further confusing the general population.

That said, there are specific differences in the terminology, and it’s important to be specific when we speak about drugs, overdoses, medications, and other things that have such a huge impact on our society.

What are Opiates?

One issue with the term “opiate” is that the definition has changed slightly over time. The distinction between the new and old simply adds to the confusion between terms with similar meanings and sounds.

Traditionally, the term opiate was used by medical professionals and pharmacologists to refer to any drug that originated from opium. Opium poppies have long been used to concoct medicinal substances and recreational drugs.

The poppy is composed partially of something called “analgesic alkaloid morphine” which is the primary compound extracted to create derivative drugs.

Early on, drugs derived from opium were primarily natural and the list was relatively short. As pharmaceutical advances blasted open the possibilities of opium, many synthetic and other nuanced forms of drugs emerged, many of them acting upon the same receptors that opium does.

Our brain is host to something called opioid receptors. These are the receptors that engage with the active compounds in opioid derived drugs, as well as several other drugs.

The definition of opiates has now shifted to include all drugs that act upon our brain’s opioid receptors.

Opium Alkaloids

To make things a little more confusing, there’s another conception of the term “opiate.”

Some suggestions state that opiates are the alkaloid compounds found inside opium that cause medicinal effects. These are essentially the chemical compounds that move through our bodies, bind with our receptors, and cause us to experience different things as a result.

There are three primary alkaloid compounds in the opium poppy, and they are all extracted and used in medicine. Some of the drugs these compounds produce are named after the compound itself, which leads those terms to refer to opiates and opioids.

That’s a little confusing. Let’s break it down with an example.

We’ve all heard of morphine before. Morphine is a substance used to treat pain and synthesized to work in conjunction with other compounds that treat many other medical conditions.

Morphine is one of the three primary alkaloids in opium. As it’s delivered in medical applications, it’s also referred to as morphine. Because it is one of the primary alkaloids in opium as well as a very well-known opium derivative, it is both an opiate and an opioid.

Morphine is an opiate because it’s one of the primary alkaloid compounds. It’s an opioid because it’s a drug derived from the opium poppy. As you can see, there are important and real distinctions between these terms, but they’re so closely related and overlapping that it’s difficult to make sense of it all.

The other two primary compounds are codeine and thebaine. Codeine is often used in pain relief medicines and cough syrup. Thebaine is a very toxic substance that is used in drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone.

What are Opioids?

Opioids share an extremely close definition to the modern definition of opiates.

They’re substances that bind to opioid receptors and produce several specific effects. Opioids are used heavily in the medical profession, oftentimes in anesthesia and other procedural situations.

Prescription opioids are regularly prescribed for pain relief, cough suppression, diarrhea, and even executions. Interestingly, opioids are even used in the process of Opiate Detox.

Because opioids are so effective at treating pain and sedating a person, they’re extremely addictive. Heroin, an opioid, is one of the most addictive drugs known to man.

Many people use opioids in all of their forms to produce euphoric effects in their time. Whether that means they are using prescription drugs or street drugs like heroin, it’s extremely dangerous to use opioids without the recommendation and supervision of a medical professional.

The Distinction Most Often Used

It may seem like there’s no difference between the two terms. Technically, there’s so much overlap that the interchanging use of opiates and opioids isn’t too much of an issue.

That said, the distinction that most people make between these terms is that “opiate” refers to the general class of drugs while an “opioid” is used to refer to specific drugs in most cases.

Another common conception is that an opiate is any drug that is naturally derived from the opium poppy, while opioids are their synthetic counterparts. In this case, Xanax and oxycodone would be considered opioids while heroin and morphine would be opiates.

Luckily for the average person, these distinctions aren’t life or death. Unless you have a profession where the specificity of terms is extremely important, making a mistake in the use of these terms won’t be life or death.

Want to Learn More?

Hopefully, this discussion of the opiate vs opioid definitions has helped clear things up a little bit. The world of medications and their effects is tough to understand sometimes but we’re here to help.

Explore our site for more insight into terminology, the effects of drugs, health, fitness, and much more.

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