Opiates vs. Opioids: What Is the Difference?

February 14, 2023

“Opiate” and “opioid” are frequently used interchangeably, but there is a difference. “Opiate” is a strict term that only includes natural drugs made from the opium poppy. Examples of opiates include morphine, codeine, and heroin. “Opioid,” however, is an umbrella term that includes all natural opiates as well as all semi-synthetic and synthetic opioids that are made in labs, such as fentanyl and methadone.

How do opiates and opioids work?

Opiates and opioids work by reaching parts of nerve cells called opioid receptors, from which they enter the nerve cell. They are used as drugs to reduce pain and in some cases are misused to cause euphoria or a “high.”

Opiates and opioids may be used very short-term for extreme pain control, but they are dangerous if used long-term because of their addiction potential. Other side effects of opiates and opioids are:

    • Constipation
    • Drowsiness
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Confusion
    • Slowed breathing

    Do opioids occur naturally in the body?

    Yes. Our brains produce molecules called endogenous opioids that act on the same nerve cell receptors as opiate drugs. The difference between endogenous opioids and drug opioids is that they do not interact with our cells and cell receptors in exactly the same way and do not cause the same side effects. One example of an engogenous opioid is endorphins, which are a natural pain reliever. Some runners report a feeling of wellbeing during training when endorphins are released.

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