Opioids vs Opiates
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What’s The Difference Between Opioids and Opiates?

According to the CDC: “Opiates” vs. “opioids.” Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they are different: Opiates refer to natural opioids such as heroin, morphine, and codeine. Opioids refer to all-natural, semisynthetic, and synthetic opioids.

What is the difference between Opioids and Opiates?

The terms opioid and opiate are sometimes used interchangeably, even though they are two different things. An opiate is a naturally occurring substance that is made from the poppy plant. Many opiates are used within the medical community, including morphine and codeine. 

Morphine is used by medical professionals to treat severe pain. It can be given in the form of capsules, tablets, or as an injectable solution. Morphine works on a person’s central nervous system and alters how the brain reacts to physical pain. While morphine is widely used still, it can be addictive, especially when misused.

Codeine is a pain reliever comparable to a mild version of morphine. While used to treat moderate pain, codeine can also commonly be found in many different cough medicines. Codeine also works by changing how the brain reacts to pain and, when used to treat a cough, decreases the activity in the brain that causes coughing. Codeine is commonly prescribed in the form of capsules, tablets, or an oral solution. 

Opium is the pure compound that is derived from the poppy plant. Opium has a long history of being used for both recreational and medicinal purposes. However, in modern times, medical professionals use morphine and codeine, which are both compounds found within opium. 

Opioids are at least partially synthetic compounds that, due to having similar molecular properties, work just like opiates within the human body. While opiates can often be habit-forming when abused, opioids are considered highly addictive. There are two classes of opioids: semi-synthetic and fully synthetic.

Semi-synthetic opioids are often used within the medical community. Oxycontin, Demerol, and Dilaudid are all semi-synthetic opioids that are considered to be opioid analgesics. An opioid analgesic is a drug used primarily for moderate to severe pain relief that mimics the effects of opiates on the human body. 

Fully synthetic opioids are less commonly used in medical communities. The two most well-known fully synthetic opioids are heroin and fentanyl. Fentanyl is a Schedule II drug, meaning it is considered highly addictive and at a high risk of being abused while also acknowledging some medicinal uses as well. Medically speaking, fentanyl is very similar to morphine but can be up to 100 times stronger.

Heroin is a Schedule I drug, meaning that it is considered at a high risk to be abused and has no beneficial medical uses. Heroin is a drug synthesized from morphine. Often sold as a white powder, heroin can be injected, sniffed, smoked, or snorted to get high. Heroin is highly addictive and one of the most dangerous Schedule I drugs on the streets. According to the CDC, opioids are the cause of almost 70% of overdose deaths in the United States, and fully synthetic opioids specifically are the cause of 46%.

History of Opiates

Opiates have a long and ancient history of being used in medicine and recreation in many different cultures. The earliest record of opium use goes as far back as 3400 B.C. in Ancient Mesopotamia. Through cultural diffusion, the use of opium spread from Mesopotamia to Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. 

Egypt began to harvest poppy plants not only for their use but for trade as well. Egypt’s opium trading continued to spread its usage into Greece and further into Europe, as well as China, by 400 A.D. For centuries, opium usage continued to grow throughout the civilized world. However, the addictive aspects associated with opiates were known even then.

In the 18th century, after Dutch traders introduced the method of smoking opium in tobacco pipes to the Chinese, China began implementing laws to restrict the usage of opium. In 1729, China banned the use of opium outside medical usage. By 1793, China had outlawed the usage and cultivation of opium entirely. 

China’s laws against opium interfered with England’s East India Company’s monopoly on the opium trade at that time. This launched the first of two skirmishes known as the “Opium Wars”. The First Opium War was fought between 1839 and 1842 between the British and the Qing Dynasty in China. The Second Opium War took place between 1856 and 1860 between a coalition of British and French forces and the Qing Dynasty. Both wars resulted in a Chinese defeat that solidified the British control over the global opium trade and gave the British control over Hong Kong for over a century.

It was also around the 19th century that scientists began working with raw opium to find better ways to use it as medicine. In 1803, German scientists discovered morphine by breaking down opium in acid. Morphine quickly became widely used in medicine throughout the world. During the American Civil War, morphine was both commonly used to treat pain and also abused by many soldiers. 

History of Opioids

As the world became more aware of the dangers of opiate addiction, scientists began trying to synthesize compounds that would work similarly to opiates without the addictive and harmful effects. In 1874, chemists began working with morphine to create a non-addictive version. They failed at this goal and instead accidentally created heroin. By the 1920s, it was clear that the abuse of heroin was on the rise, and with little medical credence, the U.S. government made the drug illegal. 

Attempting once again to make a non-addictive version of morphine, German chemists created both Demerol and methadone in the 1930s. Methadone began being used in the American medical community by 1947, and its use as a way to reduce opioid cravings was quickly discovered. By 1960, doctors began developing the idea of methadone clinics to combat the growing heroin crisis. 

Belgian scientists initially created fentanyl in the 1950s as an anesthetic. Its strength compared to other opiates allows it to be used to treat severe pain, but fentanyl remains an incredibly deadly drug, even in small doses.

Where to Turn for Help

If you or someone you know is suffering from opioid addiction, it is vital to seek help immediately. The opioid crisis is a dire situation in this country and across the globe. In 2015, 20,101 people in the United States died of an opioid overdose. That number is akin to one death caused by an opioid overdose every 12 minutes. Due to the opioid crisis, drug overdose is now the number one leading cause of accidental death in the United States.

While opioid addiction does not have a cure, it can be managed with proper treatment and support. The first step for anyone seeking help with an opioid addiction is to enroll in an opioid detox program. Due to the potency of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, withdrawal symptoms for those attempting to quit opioid usage can be severe. Opioid detox programs allow the distribution of methadone to help combat withdrawal symptoms if need be, or at least medical professional support even if someone wants to quit “cold turkey.”

Different treatment options and centers exist based on where a person is at in their recovery process. It is important to learn coping strategies and work through the underlying issues that cause addiction problems. Group therapy, sober living facilities, and 12-step programs all exist for those looking for help with opioid addiction.

Opioid and Opiate Addiction Treatment

At AM Health Care, we can help build the foundations of a sober lifestyle for those facing opioid addiction. Since it is incredibly difficult for those facing addiction to control their impulses, it is important that they seek outside help and do not try to do it on their own. Even after formal treatment plans, we strive to continue building on the foundations of an individual’s sober lifestyle.

Our facilities that offer Opioid & Opiate Addiction Treatment:

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Siri Sat Khalsa, MD, Medical Director
Clinically Reviewed By
Siri Sat Khalsa, MD
Dr. Siri Sat Khalsa is a board certified Addictionologist with over a decade of experience as a specialist in detoxing and treating patients with alcohol and substance use disorders. As a graduate of USC medical school and Harbor UCLA residency, she spent 10 years a Family Practitioner before discovering her passion for caring for patients struggling with addictions. Her approach is to safely detox patients as comfortably as possible and to then focus on caring for the anxiety and depression and other mental health issues that typically accompany substance use disorders while simultaneously crafting plans to sustain long term sobriety.

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