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Opioid vs. Opiate: What Sets Them Apart?

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Written by Sulagna Chakraborty

In the realm of pain management and addiction treatment, two terms that often find themselves at the center of discussions are ‘opioid’ and 'opiate.'  These terms have permeated global healthcare systems with far-reaching implications. The fine line distinguishing them has intrigued medical professionals, researchers, and the public alike. In this exploration, we delve into the critical differences between opioids and opiates, relying on worldwide statistics and scientific research to establish a foundation for understanding these potent substances.

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), opioid-related overdoses and deaths have surged across the globe. In 2018, approximately 110,000 people succumbed to opioid-related overdoses, with an alarming 53 million individuals using opioids for non-medical purposes.

Opioids, a class of drugs that includes natural and synthetic compounds, are prized for their potent pain-relieving properties. They encompass a wide range of substances, such as morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl. Opiates, on the other hand, are a subset of opioids derived directly from the opium poppy plant, which include morphine and codeine.

Through a meticulous examination of the chemical composition, pharmacological effects, and global prevalence of these substances, we aim to shed light on their differential impact.

Opiates: The Natural Derivatives

Opiates, natural derivatives of the opium poppy, cast a global shadow of addiction and crisis. Worldwide statistics underscore the gravity of the issue: In 2019, an estimated 53 million people used opioids, while 32,000 succumbed to opioid-related deaths. The crisis is pervasive, with an estimated 27 million people suffering from opioid use disorders. These stark numbers reveal the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to address opiate addiction and its profound impact on public health worldwide.

Origin: The Poppy Plant

The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, serves as the primary source of opium, a potent narcotic that has influenced human history and societies for centuries. Native to the Mediterranean region and Southeast Asia, the plant's origins trace back to ancient civilizations.

Historical records suggest that opium was first cultivated in the Mediterranean around 3400 BCE, with the ancient Sumerians known to have used it for its medicinal properties. Subsequently, the cultivation of opium poppies spread across various cultures, from the Assyrians to the Mesoamericans, who revered the plant for its pain-relieving qualities.

Opium's botanical origin lies in the milky latex contained within the poppy's unripe seed pods. Latex, known as opium gum, contains alkaloids like morphine and codeine, responsible for its sedative and analgesic effects. This unassuming plant has left an indelible mark on human society, both as a powerful medicine and a source of addiction.

Common Opiates: Morphine, Codeine, and Heroin

Commonly known as opioids, morphine, codeine, and heroin are three prominent members of the opiate family, with their effects on the human body dating back to the opium poppy

Morphine, first isolated in the early 19th century, has been a staple in medical practice for pain relief, but it's also notorious for its potential for dependence.  Codeine, often considered a milder alternative, is widely used as a painkiller and cough suppressant. It's converted into morphine in the body, offering both relief and the risk of addiction.  Heroin, a derivative of morphine, was initially created as a non-addictive substitute. Ironically, it turned out to be one of the most addictive substances known.

Opioids: Beyond Nature

Today, synthetic opioids, engineered in labs, have emerged as powerful alternatives to their natural counterparts. Fentanyl, for instance, is approximately 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Its advent has reshaped pain management but also triggered a surge in overdose deaths.  Moreover, tramadol, a widely used synthetic opioid, combines natural and synthetic elements. It operates on both opioid receptors and utilizes serotonergic mechanisms.

The Synthetic Creation Process

Chemists today employ diverse methods, from simple reactions to complex chemical transformations. Innovative techniques like photochemical synthesis, where light activates reactions, or microwave-assisted synthesis, which hastens reactions, have broadened possibilities. Moreover, the use of flow chemistry systems has emerged as a more efficient approach, allowing continuous production. 

Popular Opioids: OxyContin, Hydrocodone, and Fentanyl

OxyContin, hydrocodone, and fentanyl are potent opioids commonly prescribed for moderate to severe pain management. These medications act by binding to opioid receptors in the nervous system, producing analgesic and euphoric effects. While effective in alleviating pain, their misuse and abuse can lead to significant health risks, including addiction, overdose, and respiratory depression.

OxyContin, a semisynthetic opioid, is known for its extended-release formulation, providing prolonged pain relief. Hydrocodone, often combined with acetaminophen, is frequently prescribed for acute pain management. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine, making it particularly effective for severe pain, such as cancer-related pain.

The delicate balance between pain relief and potential harm necessitates careful prescribing practices and patient education.

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Common Side Effects of Opioids and Opiates

An array of adverse effects often accompanies the therapeutic benefits of opioids and opiates. These include constipation, a distressing and underappreciated consequence that occurs due to the decreased motility of the gastrointestinal tract. Additionally, respiratory depression, a potentially fatal outcome, can occur when high doses suppress the body's ability to breathe. Less acknowledged, though equally concerning, is hyperalgesia, a paradoxical increase in pain sensitivity attributed to prolonged opioid use. Cognitive impairment and hormonal imbalances further emerge as obscure repercussions.

Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are frequent side effects associated with opioid and opiate use. The exact mechanisms underlying these gastrointestinal disturbances are multifaceted, involving both peripheral and central factors.

Peripherally, opioids can directly interact with receptors in the gastrointestinal tract, slowing down peristalsis and delaying regular bowel movements. This sluggish movement of food through the digestive system can contribute to a feeling of nausea and discomfort.

Furthermore, receptors in the chemoreceptor trigger zone (CTZ), a region of the brainstem responsible for initiating the vomiting reflex, are activated by opioids.


Constipation, a frequent and often distressing side effect of opioid and opiate use, stems from the drugs' profound impact on gastrointestinal motility. Opioids bind to receptors in the intestinal wall, slowing down the contractions that propel food through the digestive tract. This reduced peristalsis leads to prolonged transit time, increased water absorption from stool, and ultimately, hard, dry stools that are difficult to pass. Compounding the issue is the opioidergic effect on the anal sphincter, which tightens and resists the passage of stool. The prevalence of opioid-induced constipation (OIC) is substantial, affecting up to 90% of patients on long-term opioid therapy. OIC can significantly impact the quality of life, causing abdominal discomfort, bloating, and even fecal impaction.

Drowsiness and Sedation

Drowsiness and sedation arise from the drugs' ability to suppress central nervous system (CNS) activity. Opioids bind to mu-opioid receptors in the brain, particularly in areas associated with arousal and wakefulness. This binding triggers a cascade of inhibitory signals, dampening neural activity and inducing feelings of drowsiness and lethargy.

The potency and selectivity of opioids for CNS receptors determine the extent of drowsiness and sedation. Strong opioids, such as morphine and fentanyl, are more likely to produce pronounced CNS depression, while weaker opioids, such as codeine and tramadol, may cause milder effects.

Individual susceptibility also plays a role in the severity of opioid-induced sedation. Factors such as age, liver function, and concurrent medication use can influence how the body processes and responds to opioids, making some individuals more prone to drowsiness and sedation than others.

Managing opioid-induced sedation involves adjusting medication dosage, selecting alternative opioids with fewer CNS-depressant effects, or employing non-opioid analgesics.

Itchiness (Opioid-Induced Pruritus)

Opioid-induced pruritus (OIP), commonly known as itchiness, affects numerous opioid and opiate users, with up to 85% experiencing this distressing side effect. The exact mechanisms behind OIP remain partially elucidated, involving a complex interplay of both peripheral and central factors.

Peripheral Mechanisms:

Opioids can stimulate histamine release in the skin, activating itch-inducing receptors on sensory neurons.

Central Mechanisms:

Opioids disrupt the balance of signals in the spinal cord and directly influence itch-processing pathways in the brain.  The severity of OIP varies based on factors like opioid type, dosage, and individual susceptibilities, impacting daily life and sleep.  Managing OIP is complex but includes non-pharmacological measures as well.

Respiratory Depression

Respiratory depression, a frequently overlooked consequence of opioid and opiate use, warrants closer examination. The mechanism behind this phenomenon is the binding of opioids and opiates to mu-opioid receptors in the brainstem, disrupting the neural signals that regulate breathing. This risk is not confined to excessive doses or recreational use; therapeutic use, especially in opioid-naive individuals, can also trigger respiratory depression. Compounding the issue, genetic factors and individual variations in metabolism further complicate predicting susceptibility.

Confusion and Cognitive Impairment

One of the most concerning side effects of opioids and opiates is their potential to induce confusion and cognitive impairment. Opioids act on opioid receptors in various brain regions, including those involved in attention, memory, and executive function. Opioid-induced alterations in these regions can lead to impaired cognitive abilities, including difficulty concentrating, disorientation, and slowed thinking.  The risk of opioid-induced cognitive impairment is particularly high in older adults and individuals with pre-existing cognitive decline. Further, the lost productivity, accidents, and compromised decision-making that come from it have wide-ranging implications.

The Overlapping Effects on the Human Body

The intricate interplay of the body's physiological systems often yields surprising consequences. For instance, emerging research uncovers the intricate links between oral health and systemic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular problems. The oral microbiome, a complex ecosystem of bacteria, can influence distant bodily functions, challenging the conventional separation of oral and overall health. Similarly, the gut-brain axis illuminates how the digestive system communicates with the brain, impacting mood, cognition, and even mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

The Dangers and Addiction Potential

The effectiveness of opiates and opioids comes with a significant risk of addiction and overdose.

Opioids exert their effects by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, mimicking the natural neurotransmitter endorphin. This interaction triggers the brain's reward system, reinforcing the drug-seeking behavior characteristic of addiction. Addiction to opioids can lead to physical dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms. Individuals with opioid use disorder often experience impaired social and professional functioning and an increased risk of infectious diseases.

Treatment Options Available

Emerging therapies like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are gaining traction in treating depression and other mental health disorders. TMS utilizes magnetic fields to stimulate specific brain regions, offering a promising alternative to traditional pharmacological approaches.

Epigenetic therapies hold the potential to target the root causes of diseases by modifying gene expression. Further, psychedelic-assisted therapy is being explored for various mental health conditions, shedding light on a previously stigmatized and overlooked avenue for treatment.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) combines psychotherapy and pharmaceutical interventions, frequently harnessing opioid agonists, partial agonists, or antagonists to confront addiction. Agonists, such as methadone, mimic the addictive substance's effects. This may aid in withdrawal management, while partial agonists like buprenorphine offer milder effects, thereby minimizing the euphoric high. Antagonists block opioid receptors, rendering the addictive substance ineffective. MAT's potential to disrupt addictive pathways and foster long-term recovery is an indispensable tool in the war on addiction.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy delves into the intricate mechanisms underlying human behavior.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) emphasizes the fluidity of behavior and our responses to environmental cues. Through this lens, behavior is seen as a balance between context and cognition, urging individuals to act in accordance with their values and intentions.

Also, Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO-DBT) zeros in on the role of over-controlled behaviors, shedding light on the significance of emotional expression and social connection.


Opioid detoxification, the process of gradually withdrawing from opioid medications, is a critical and often challenging step in the treatment of opioid use disorder. It requires careful medical supervision and support as the body adjusts to the absence of opioids, leading to a range of withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can vary in intensity and duration depending on the type and amount of opioid used, the length of addiction, and genetic factors.

Interventions that may play a role in detoxification and long-term recovery include:

  1. Neuromodulation techniques such as deep brain stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and acupuncture have shown promise in reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
  2. Mindfulness and meditation: Mindfulness-based interventions can help individuals manage stress, anxiety, and cravings associated with opioid withdrawal and recovery.
  3. Nutritional therapy: Addressing nutritional deficiencies can improve overall health and well-being, making it easier to cope with the physical and emotional challenges of detoxification.
  4. Peer support: Connecting with others who are going through similar experiences can provide encouragement, motivation, and practical advice.

Inpatient Rehabilitation

Inpatient rehabilitation centers are designed to address both the physical and psychological facets of addiction through programs that typically last anywhere between 28 and 30 days. Medical professionals employ evidence-based strategies using medications to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy may be commonly used to tackle the emotional underpinnings of addiction. Often overlooked, acupuncture and mindfulness techniques offer important pathways to recovery, demonstrating the versatility of treatment options. Emerging research also highlights the role of epigenetics, which is gaining popularity as a part of inpatient rehab. These treat the hereditary aspects of opioid dependency. Furthermore, the communal dynamic within a rehabilitation center fosters a sense of shared determination and belongingness. 

Outpatient Rehabilitation

Outpatient rehabilitation for opioid and opiate addiction, while less discussed than inpatient programs, presents a pivotal dimension. Outpatient rehabilitation integrates conventional treatment methods with telehealth, opening doors to remote support and access to medications like buprenorphine, which is particularly vital in rural areas. Patient empowerment takes center stage as individuals learn to navigate daily life while battling addiction. This approach taps into the often-overlooked social determinants of addiction, addressing employment and familial support.

Short and Long-term Recovery Plan with Cadabam's Anunitha Rehab Centre

At Cadabam's Anunitha Rehab Center, we offer individualized short- and long-term treatment plans for opiate and opioid addiction. Our supportive environment and experienced professionals empower our clients to achieve lasting sobriety and a fulfilling life free from addiction.

Short-term Recovery Plan:

  1. Medical detoxification to safely withdraw from opiates or opioids
  2. Individualized counseling and therapy to address addiction triggers and behaviors
  3. Group therapy to build support and camaraderie with others in recovery
  4. Holistic wellness practices to promote physical and mental well-being

Long-term Recovery Plan:

  1. Continued counseling and therapy to maintain sobriety and address underlying issues
  2. Life skills training to develop healthy coping mechanisms and reintegrate into society
  3. Aftercare services to provide ongoing support and resources
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1. What are opiates and opiate derivatives?

Opiates are drugs naturally derived from the opium poppy plant. They include compounds like morphine and codeine, which are used for pain relief and can have strong sedative effects.

2. What are opioids and other types?

Opioids, on the other hand, encompass a broader category of substances, both natural and synthetic, that bind to the body's opioid receptors. This category includes opiates but also synthetic opioids like fentanyl and semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone.

3. What are opiates, and list two types of opiates?

Opiates are a subset of opioids, which are natural or synthetic substances that bind to opioid receptors in the body. Types of opiates include thebaine and oripavine, both of which are naturally occurring alkaloids found in opium. These substances share similarities with morphine and codeine in terms of their effects on the body's opioid receptors.

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