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The Difference Between Opioids and Opiates

opioids vs opiates

Opioids vs. Opiates

Opioids and opiates are types of drugs you’ve probably heard of. From heroin and fentanyl to Percocet and Vicodin, there are many different kinds of opioids. Some are pain medications, while others are strictly illicit drugs. The terms opioids and opiates are often used interchangeably, but actually refer to different drugs.

Opiates: Natural Painkillers

The term opiate refers to drugs and substances derived from the opium poppy. Opium poppies, or Papaver somniferum, contain three psychoactive compounds: morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Thebaine may metabolize into oripavine, another opiate often used to make different opioids. So basically, opiates are natural substances that are derived from the opium poppy. Used for thousands of years for their ability to block pain, scientists have recently found ways to synthesize different drugs from these opiates.

Opioids: Synthetic Drugs

The term opioid refers to any drug that acts on the opioid receptors in the brain. Opiates are actually one type of opioid, while there are other synthetic and semi-synthetic drugs included. Examples of common synthetic opioids include:

  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl
  • Demerol

These substances are made completely in a lab, and are not derived from any natural opiates. They act in the same way in the brain, and are often developed to serve specific purposes. There are also a few semisynthetic opioids that are derived from opiates but are not natural. These include:

  • Hydrocodone (Norco®, Vicodin®)
  • Oxyocodone (Oxycontin®, Percocet®)
  • Diamorphine (Heroin)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid®)
  • Oxymorphone (Numorphan®, Opana®)
  • Buprenorphine (Suboxone®, Subutex®)

opioid addictionHow Opioids Work

DrugAbuse.gov shares that opioids act on three different kinds of opioid receptors in the brain: mu, delta, and kappa. The mu receptors are responsible for the pleasurable effects of opioids and the pain reducing qualities. The delta opioid receptor is responsible for increased anxiety and a depression-like experience. The kappa receptors also are involved with pain response, and also can cause hallucinogenic or dissociative effects.

When opioids hit your opioid receptors, the effect the limbic system, the brain stem, and the spinal cord. They effect on the limbic system causes euphoria, relaxation, and ease. The interaction with the brain stem impacts your body’s automatic actions like breathing and pain response, often causing a decrease in pain and slowed breathing. When opioids interact with the spinal cord, they greatly decrease the sensation of pain as they stop the body from sending pain to the brain.

Opioid and Opiate Addiction

Opioid and opiate addiction are both common. These are highly addictive drugs. Even if you’re taking these drugs exactly as prescribed, it’s possible to build physical dependence. Studies have found that physical dependence can build in as little as a few weeks of prescribed use. That is, your body becomes accustomed to the drugs in your system and dependent upon their presence to function. Although this may not feel exactly the same as when psychological addiction develops, this is your body’s desire to have more of the drug in your system. This can happen to anyone when prescribed prescription painkillers.

When somebody begins taking opiates or opioids more than prescribed, they’re stepping onto quite shaky grounds. Taking more opioids than prescribed or taking them longer than prescribed can lead to addiction fairly quickly. Many abusers of street drugs like heroin started by using prescription painkillers, and turned to heroin as a cheaper and more effective alternative. Although opioids can be greatly beneficial in the treatment of pain, we should be careful as the results of long-term opioid use can be deadly.

Opioid and Opiate Withdrawal

One of the most dangerous pieces to the opiate and opioid puzzle is the process of withdrawal. Although not directly lethal, many don’t make it through the detox process. From nausea and vomiting to fevers and insomnia, coming off opioids can be intensely uncomfortable. Unfortunately, many people who try to detox themselves at home end up using again. The strong cravings to use may get the best of us and we return to using to cure our withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment often consists of detox, a residential program, and sober living. During detox, medical professionals may prescribe medications to help you go through the withdrawal process with minimal discomfort. During this time and into residential treatment, various therapy methods may be used to help the individual address any issues that may lead to relapse. Many treatment centers and programs encourage some sort of spiritual recovery program such as twelve-step, Refuge Recovery, or personal spiritual practice.

There are also support groups like Pills Anonymous and Heroin Anonymous to support those specifically struggling with these issues. If you are struggling with an addiction to opioids or opiates, know that you are not alone. There are others who have gone through this before, those that are going through it right now, and professionals to help you along your journey. Recovery doesn’t always feel possible, but it really is.

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