Opioids Vs. Opiates | Facts & Differences

Both are considered narcotic analgesics (or pain relievers), can be addictive, and can lead to physical dependency, tolerance, and addiction.

Although opioids and opiates are terms that are used interchangeably, they’re actually two different things.

Both opioids and opiates are prescription drugs that are prescribed as anesthetics, pain relievers for chronic pain, and suppressants for coughs and diarrhea. Some are even used to treat opioid use disorder.

The main difference between the two is that opiates are natural forms of opioids while opioids can refer to natural, synthetic, or semi-synthetic opioids.

About Opioids

Opioid is an umbrella term that describes a class of drugs that shares similarities to opium. Some are natural and actually come from the poppy plant while others are synthetic and made in a lab.

These drugs work by interacting with the opioid receptors in the central nervous system. These receptors control how we feel pain and pleasure, which explains why so many opioids are used in pain medications.

Some of the most common prescription opioids include:

  • hydrocodone
  • oxymorphone
  • morphine
  • tramadol
  • oxycodone
  • fentanyl
  • methadone
  • dextromethorphan
  • meperidine
  • codeine

But because they also cause feelings of euphoria and pleasure, they can be highly addictive and have a high potential for abuse as well.

Types Of Opioids

There are three types of opioids that are widely used: synthetic, semi-synthetic, and natural.


Synthetic opioids are created in a laboratory and are entirely manmade. Some of the most common synthetic opioids include fentanyl, tramadol, and methadone. Most opioids are at least partly synthetic.


Semi-synthetic opioids are made partially from plants and partially in a laboratory. After the active ingredient is taken from poppy plants, the lab alters it so it has the desired effect when ingested.

The most common semi-synthetic opioids include oxycodone (Oxycontin and Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and heroin.


Natural opioids are substances that have been taken from the seed or sap of the opium poppy plant. They act on opioid receptors in the brain to relieve pain just like the man-made versions. Natural opioids are known as opiates.

About Opiates

Opiates are chemical compounds that are extracted from the sap or fibers of a poppy plant and are a subgroup of opioids. All opiates are opioids but not all opioids are opiates.

Common types of opiates include:

Opiates are also used in semi-synthetic opioids like hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone, and buprenorphine.

Our body does produce natural opiate-like substances called endorphins and enkephalins. They give us a natural high but, unlike opiates, they don’t have a risk of addiction.

Similarities & Differences Between Opioids & Opiates

The biggest difference between opiates and opioids is how they are made. Opiates are taken from natural poppy plants and opioids are either natural, semi-synthetic, or completely lab-made.

Both are considered narcotic analgesics (or pain relievers), can be addictive, and can lead to physical dependency, tolerance, and addiction.

Side Effects Of Opioids

Specific opioids and opiates come with their own symptoms but more generally, most opioids can bring on the following side effects:

  • euphoria
  • slowed breathing
  • constipation
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • itchiness
  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • dry mouth
  • sedation
  • cravings
  • tolerance
  • addiction
  • dependence

Symptoms Of An Opioid Overdose

Opioid overdoses are also something both opioids and opiates have in common. They can occur if you take too much of the drug for your body to handle. An opiate or opioid drug overdose can lead to:

  • respiratory failure
  • slow breathing
  • slow heartbeat
  • small pupils
  • vomiting
  • unresponsiveness
  • blue skin from poor circulation
  • death

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

Opioid withdrawal is also an issue when taking both opioids and opiates. If you take either for a long period of time or in high doses, a physical dependence is likely to develop. When it does and you try to quit the drug, withdrawal symptoms can occur.

These withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • agitation
  • anxiety
  • muscle aches
  • insomnia
  • runny nose
  • sweating
  • yawning
  • diarrhea
  • dilated pupils
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Because these symptoms can be so unpleasant, it’s recommended you don’t go through the process alone. A detox program can ensure you’re in a safe, medically supervised environment where healthcare providers can treat your symptoms as they show up.

Treatment For Opioid Addiction

If you or a loved one is struggling with opioid abuse or another form of drug abuse, Northeast Addiction Treatment Center is here to help. We offer a variety of outpatient services including intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization programs, and medication-assisted treatment.

To find out more, please call our helpline today.

Written by
Northeast Addition Editorial Team

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This page does not provide medical advice.

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