Opioids vs Opiates
For the last few years, health officials at the federal level have become increasingly concerned about what the government is now calling “America’s addiction to opioids.” According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Congressional testimonies have been heard all the way back to 2006, and yet the problem continues to worsen. Read our article on the Opioid Epidemic.
For individuals and loved ones struggling to make sense of it all, much of the frequently used terminology can be more confusing than it is helpful. Take the terms opioids and opiates, for example. What is the difference? These distinctions are important when seeking the right type of treatment for drug addiction.
Opioids Versus Opiates
According to Oregon’s Drug and Alcohol Policy Commission, the difference between the term opioid and the term opiate is mainly one of production.
In summary, an opiate is a substance that has been either extracted from or refined out of some type of naturally occurring matter, such as a plant. An opioid, in contrast, is a synthetic or man-made version of the same.
However, for the purposes of the media, the general public and even some healthcare officials, the term opioid has become preferred when referring to this class of drugs.
Both opiates and opioids are used for medicinal purposes and for generally similar results: reduction in pain, surgical anesthetic, pain management, control of severe medical symptoms such as coughing or diarrhea and also at times to try to treat opioid addiction.
The best known opiates include heroin, opium, codeine and morphine. The former two are currently illegal in the United States, while the latter two are legal if obtained with a doctor’s prescription for medical purposes.
The best known opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and methadone. Certain opioids can be purchased over the counter without a prescription, while others require a doctor’s prescription to obtain.
The word “narcotic” comes from a combination of ancient Greek and Latin terms that essentially describe a state of numbing sleep. A narcotic is a type of painkiller and will either be an opiate or an opioid drug.
So when the term narcotic is used, this term always refers to the legal or illegal use of opiates or opioids or both.
How Dangerous are Opiates and Opioids?
PBS Frontline reports that the impact of opioid drug abuse is sufficient to rival deaths from AIDS during the 1990’s. As well, more people die from opioids than from car crashes annually.
An estimated 27,000 people pass away from opioid abuse every year, far surpassing the annual estimated death rate from cocaine abuse (which is just over 5,400). This works out to about 46 people every day according to NIDA.
Unfortunately, addiction to prescription opioids is now the leading culprit for addiction and annual fatalities, surpassing even heroin, an illicit street drug form of opioids. In some states, there are more prescriptions written for opioids each year than there are citizens registered in that state!
All this adds up to a very significant health risk posed by opioids and opiates today, with nearly 2 million people currently reporting addiction to these drugs. To date, it is a problem state and federal authorities do not know how to effectively address.
How Opioids and Opiates Affect the Brain and Body
Whether taken in illicit street drug or prescription medication form, opioids and opiates have the same basic impact on a person’s body and brain. They seek out and then connect with (“bind” with) special brain, spine or body receptors designed to accept opioids.
When opioids and opiates bind with these special receptors, pain messages that would otherwise continue to pass between the body and brain are interrupted and never make it to the brain. This is how these drugs work to ease pain.
So clearly opioids and opiates have powerful pain-relieving properties, which is why they are frequently prescribed during or after surgical procedures and for long-term issues of pain management. However, in addition to relieving pain, this class of drugs can also produce a “high” that many users describe as euphoric.
Symptoms of Opioid and Opiate Addiction
When a person first begins taking opioids or opiates in any form, they may experience certain temporary side effects such as constipation, nausea, vomiting or drowsiness, reports Web MD.
These side effects can become much worse if opioids or opiates are taken with any other substances that have known interactions, such as alcohol, sleep aids, some anti-depressant medications and also some anti-histamines.
At first, opioids and opiates can seem like a life-saver to people with severe or chronic pain. Where the trouble begins is when they have taken these drugs for a sufficient time period that their body begins to develop a tolerance to them. At this point, higher doses are required to achieve the same impact.
The longer a person takes opioids or opiates, the more risk there is of dependency. Addiction begins when a person tries to stop taking these medications and experiences what are called “withdrawal symptoms” like irritability, anxiety, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, nausea and muscle pains.
At this point, opioids and opiates are now potentially doing that person more harm than good, and the body and brain will experience some moderate to severe discomfort as the person tries to stop taking them (this is called “detox”). Medical supervision during detox is typically required for safety reasons.