What is the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids?

Opiates and Opioids 

Both opiates and opioids are groups of drugs that are considered narcotics. Many people use the words interchangeably but they are different. They are used for medical purposes and are mainly prescribed for pain relief, anesthesia, or even treatment of substance use disorder. The primary difference in both groups is how they are manufactured. Opiates are made from naturally derived chemical compounds. Opioids are made from being synthesized or a chemical compound made in a lab. 


Opiates are made from the poppy plant. They are considered natural because their main ingredient is found in nature. Drugs that are most common opiates that are derived from poppy plants are: 

  • Opium
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Heroin


Opioids are not considered natural because their chemical compound is not made from a plant but are synthesized. The pharmaceutical companies have made over 500 different opioids. Opioid has become the more common phrase that is used even though it is distinctly different from opiates. Although they are created in a lab, they act similarly in the body because they have a similar molecule made up of opiates. Using terms like “synthetic opioids” is considered redundant because all opioids are synthetic. Examples that are most commonly used are: 

  • Dextromethorphan (this is more commonly known as NyQuil, Robitussin, Theraflu)
  • Dextropropoxyphene (more commonly referred to as Darvocet or Darvon)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin) 
  • Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet) 
  • Loperamide (Imodium)
  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl
  • Carfentanyl
  • Meperidine (also known as Demerol) 

Are they both addictive? 

The short answer is yes. Both opiates and opioids are highly addictive. Because opioids are manufactured to mimic opiates in the body, they are equally addictive as opiates. There are many signs of an opioid/opiate addiction. Although people with substance use disorder have a way of hiding their addiction, there are signs to look for when someone has crossed the line and has become physically addicted. Some physical signs of addiction could be excessive drowsiness, itchiness, relaxed speech, and sudden weight loss. Behavioral signs could be apparent as well. Some behavioral signs to look for are unusually happiness at times which switches to irritability quickly, secretively meeting up with new friends, unexplained financial problems, and irresponsible behavior such as missing work or important appointments. 

Why do people switch from opiates to opioids? 

Drug overdoses started with the overprescribing of opiates. When laws were put in place to try and prevent the overprescribing of opiates, people switched to drugs that could be easily found and accessible. At first, there was an increase in heroin use, which is not necessarily a switch from opiates to opioids. However, when the crackdown happened on heroin distribution the opioid that came out that was the deadliest of them all was fentanyl. Fentanyl has been the number one cause of overdose death in recent years.

Fentanyl is an opioid that is mostly manufactured by China. It is cheap and easy and extremely addictive. The fentanyl that is being purchased on the streets is different than fentanyl that may be prescribed by a doctor. There is no way of knowing exactly what is in the substance purchased off the street. Those who are addicted to opioids like fentanyl should understand the high risk of overdose associated with fentanyl use. 

Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder 

Those who are addicted may be diagnosed with opioid use disorder. The opioid crisis has affected millions of Americans and continues to grow. Those addicted are at severe medical risk. Many laws have been put into place to try and decrease the exposure and risk of people who are prescribed these drugs. We have learned over decades of misinformation that education about opiate and opioid addiction is key for those who have been prescribed drugs for a medical issue.

Because opiates and opioids are essential for some medical interventions, those who are prescribed these narcotics are in need of current information about the drug they are being prescribed. If education does not work and a person becomes addicted there is treatment available for them. There are medical and behavioral interventions available for opioid use disorder. Treatment is becoming more and more accessible to those addicted but more work needs to be done. 

Absolute Awakenings is using evidence-based practices to help treat opioid use disorder. If you or someone you love is struggling with opiate or opioid addiction, please reach out to us today so we can walk you through the process of healing.