Comparing Opioids and Opiates: What’s the Difference?

Drugs & Alcohol - Featured
Published: 03/23/2022 | Author:

They’re all painkillers, right?

Is there really any difference when comparing opioids and opiates?

Actually, yes.

The terms “opioids” and “opiates” have become synonymous with people using them interchangeably. But technically, opioids and opiates are different because they refer to the way the substances are made.

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Comparing Opioids and Opiates: Synthetic Versus Natural

Opiates are natural chemical compounds. They are extracted from opium (poppy) plants.

Opioids, on the other hand, are chemical compounds not found in nature. They are synthesized in a lab or are semi-synthetic. They are derived from natural opiates and mixed with synthetic components.

But the term “opioids” also refers to all natural opiates and synthetic opioids. It is an all-inclusive term for both kinds of substances.

So opiates are a type of opioid.

That means all opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates. Got it?


Let’s look at some examples.

Types of Opiates and Opioids

Opiates (natural opioids) include:

Opioids (synthetic) include, among others:

  • Oxycodone
  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl
  • Oxymorphone
  • Hydrocodone

Brand name opioids you may recognize include:

  • Percocet
  • Vicodin
  • OxyContin
  • Imodium
  • Demerol

By definition, morphine is an opiate and an opioid (since the term opioid includes all natural and synthetic types). Fentanyl, on the other hand, is an opioid but not an opiate (since it is not natural).

Comparing Opioids and Opiates: How They Work

All opioids (synthetic and natural) work by interacting with opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors control the way your brain perceives the sensation of pain, allowing opioids to dull the senses and dull pain.

But opioids can also create feelings of euphoria.

Are They All Narcotics?

All opioids and opiates are considered narcotics, since they control pain. However, it’s important to remember that not all narcotics are illegal.

Unfortunately, the term “narcotic” now carries a stigma. It can bring up images of police narcotics squads, drug houses, and drug busts. But the word narcotic simply means “sleep-inducing” or “numbness-inducing.”

The word “narcotic” simply means “sleep-inducing” or “numbness-inducing.”

Common Uses of Opioids and Opiates

Medical professionals may prescribe opioids (including opiates) for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Pain relief
  • Diarrhea relief
  • Cough relief
  • Anesthesia
  • Treating opioid use disorder

When taken for short periods of time and as prescribed, opioids can be safe.

Medical professionals may prescribe legal opioids (including opiates) for a variety of reasons, including pain relief, anesthesia, cough relief, and more.

People also abuse opioids in non-prescribed ways. Because these substances can be addictive, misuse and abuse often leads to opioid addiction.

Opioid Addiction

Something all of these drugs have in common is their potential for addiction.

Whether they are natural or lab-made, opioids work the same way in the body. They trigger the brain to release endorphins (happy chemicals). The endorphins boost feelings of pleasure and euphoria. But when the effects wear off, the lack of endorphins often makes the person want to use opioids more frequently to achieve the same  euphoric effects. And when opioids are taken repeatedly, the brain’s natural production of endorphins slows down.

If you take opioids repeatedly, your brain’s natural production of endorphins slows down.

When it takes more and more opioids to feel “good,” this is known as tolerance.

When someone develops tolerance, they may continue to increase their doses to keep feeling good. This cycle can develop quickly, and it often turns into physical and psychological dependence (addiction).


One of the biggest differences among the various types of opioids is their potency power.

For example, heroin is about three times stronger than morphine. And fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

This makes overdose much more likely when you’re taking stronger drugs. It’s why we’re seeing so many overdoses across the country. More and more people are exposed to the powerful opioid, fentanyl.

As you take stronger drugs, overdose becomes more likely.

Families Against Fentanyl reported that the number of deaths from fentanyl between 2020 and 2021 surpassed the number of deaths from suicide, COVID-19, and car accidents.

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One of the most important similarities when comparing opioids and opiates is the support available for those struggling with opioid misuse.

Regardless of which type of drug is being abused or what kind of opioid kicked off the addiction – help is available. No opioid is too powerful to overcome – with the right support.

For information about treatment options for you or a loved one, call 800-483-2193(Who Answers?) today.

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