In this article, I’m going to educate you on the difference between opioid and opiate drugs. This is one of the most common topics of confusion in the realm of opiate/opioid use, addiction, dependence, and treatment.
Thus, my purpose with this post is to clear up the confusion and bring clarity to this subject of defining the similarities and differences between opioids and opiates…
An area of specialty of mine, and a topic that I find truly fascinating.
There is a way to write about the difference between opioid and opiate drugs that is confusing, and there is a way to explain this concept that is a bit simpler.
I’m going to try and make this as simple as I can by providing bullet-points, pictures, and easy-to-comprehend concepts.
How does that sound?
Are you ready to learn about the similarities and differences between opioids and opiates in a way that is both simple and fun?!
If so, continue to read on, because we’re just getting started…
Table of Contents
- 1 Difference Between Opioid and Opiate Drugs
- 2 Difference Between Opioid and Opiate Drugs – Overview of Opiates
- 3 Difference Between Opioid and Opiate Drugs – Overview of Opioids
- 4 Difference Between Opioid and Opiate – Old Definition vs New Definition
- 5 Difference Between Opioid and Opiate – Key Concepts
Difference Between Opioid and Opiate Drugs
You’ve probably heard people throw around the words “opiate” and “opioid” (maybe even me!) and find yourself wondering what the difference is between these two words.
I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about the difference between opioid and opiate drugs, including what makes something an opioid vs an opiate, and what drugs fall into each class.
Here is a basic overview for you to learn before we dive deeper:
- Opiate – A drug derived from the opium poppy plant (examples are morphine, codeine, and heroin).
- Synthetic Opioid – Any synthetic (“man-made”) narcotic that has opiate-like activities (eg pain relief, sedation, constipation, pupil constriction), but is not derived from opium.
- Natural Opioid – Any natural substance (eg plants) that has opiate-like activities, but is not derived from opium.
- Endogenous Opioid – An opiate-like substance, such as endorphin or enkephalin (natural painkilling neurotransmitters), produced by the body (such as from exercise).
Difference Between Opioid and Opiate Drugs – Overview of Opiates
Now that you have a basic overview of the difference between opioid and opiate drugs, let’s take a more in-depth look at what makes something an opioid or an opiate.
Opiates are a class of drug that has been derived from a plant commonly called the opium poppy.
Whether these opiate drugs are natural, synthetic, or semi-synthetic, they all originate from the opium poppy plant (pictured below).
Difference Between Opioid and Opiate Drugs – Overview of Opioids
Know that you’ve been educated on opiates, let’s go into more detail about the term “opioids.” To review, “opiate” refers to any drug that is derived from the opium poppy plant.
“Opioid” is a more general term that includes opiates as well as synthetic drugs/medications such as tramadol, methadone, and buprenorphine (active drug in Suboxone and Subutex) that produce analgesia and other effects similar to morphine.
Additionally, plants not related to the opium poppy that bind to opioid receptors and produce opiate-like effects are also classified as opioids.
Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a commonly-used plant in the coffee family that contains alkaloids with these properties, making kratom a very popular natural opioid for treating withdrawal symptoms, as an opiate/opioid replacement, and for pain relief, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and many other physical and psychological health issues.
Difference Between Opioid and Opiate – Old Definition vs New Definition
To give you another perspective on the difference between the terms “opiate” and “opioid,” I’m going to talk about the main reason why there is so much confusion regarding this topic.
And to do that, I’m going to quote The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment (naabt.org).
Here’s what this organization has to say on the topic which should bring more clarity to your understanding:
“At one time “opioids” referred to synthetic opiates only (drugs created to emulate opium, however different chemically). Now the term Opioid is used for the entire family of opiates including natural, synthetic and semi-synthetic.
Medical professionals use the word opioid to refer to most opioids, and opiate for a specific non-synthetic opioid; however, many only use “opioid”. Consistent with the newest definition, this website uses “opioid” to refer to all opioids and opiates.
An opioid is any agent that binds to opioid receptors (protein molecules located on the membranes of some nerve cells) found principally in the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract and elicits a response.”
According to naabt.org, there are four broad classes of opioids:
- Endogenous opioid, naturally produced in the body, endorphins
- Opium alkaloids, such as morphine and codeine
- Semi-synthetic opioids such as heroin, oxycodone, and buprenorphine
- Fully synthetic opioids, such as methadone, that have structures unrelated to the opium alkaloids
Difference Between Opioid and Opiate – Key Concepts
Okay, I really hope this article educated you on the difference between opioid and opiate drugs. And now that you’ve also been informed about the “old” vs “newest” definition of “opiates vs opioids,” you can probably see why there is some gray area and thus confusion regarding this topic.
Since many people and professionals refer to the old definitions and some individuals, professionals, and organizations (such as naabt.org) use the newest definition, it’s no wonder this topic has so many people scratching their heads!
The following visual aid shows how the vast majority of the world defines the difference between opioids and opiates:
But according to the newest definition, any drug (natural, semi-synthetic, or synthetic) that binds to opioid receptors in your body is referred to as an opioid, even if the drug is totally natural and derived from the opium poppy (such as morphine and codeine).
Thus, if you go by the newest definition, here are examples of drugs that are referred to as opioids:
Back in the day, I was taught that out of the list above, buprenorphine, methadone, and tramadol were opioids – and heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and codeine were opiates.
Now according to the newest definition that has gained medical acceptance and is the universal standard, all of these drugs are simply part of four broad classes under the umbrella term:
I hope this answers all of your questions on this interesting topic!
If you’re interested in learning more, make sure you check out the Opiate Addiction Support Online Course Collection, which has some free courses that you’ll totally LOVE.
If you have any comments or questions on the difference between opioid and opiate drugs, please post them in the comment box below.