WebMD Logo Icon
WebMD Connect to Care helps you find services to manage your health. When you purchase any of these services, WebMD may receive a fee. WebMD does not endorse any product, service or treatment referred to on this page. X

Opiates vs Opioids: What's the Difference?

By Jennifer Daluro
Confused about the difference between opiates and opioids? Read on for important details about these two terms and how they each factor in the opioid crisis.

As the opioid crisis continues to unfold in America, you may have also heard the word “opiate” to describe these addictive drugs. However, there is a difference between the terms “opioid” and “opiate”. Opioids and opiates are similar in that they both bind to the body’s opioid receptors to produce powerful pain-killing, sedating, and euphoric effects. But they also vary in some ways. Read on to learn the main differences between opioids and opiates, why these drugs can lead to addiction, and how opioid abuse led to the opioid crisis.

What’s the Difference Between Opioids and Opiates?

Firstly, what are opioids? The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) notes that there are two types of opioids:

  • Natural opioids are naturally-occuring substances that are harvested from the poppy seed of certain plant varieties. These substances act on the body’s nerve receptors to relieve pain. 
  • Synthetic opioids, in contrast, are substances that act on these same receptors in the body—however, they’re created in a laboratory. One of the most common synthetic opioids is fentanyl

The term “opioid”, then, refers to both the natural and synthetic forms of these chemicals. 

Next, what are opiates? The CDC reports that the word “opiates” refers to natural opioids specifically. Common drugs in this category include:

  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • Codeine

Our body also produces opioid-like substances called endorphins and enkephalins. These endogenous opioids produce a “natural high” that doesn't cause addiction.

All three opioid molecules bind to the opioid receptors found on cell surfaces. However, a groundbreaking 2018 study published in Neuron found that opiates (such as morphine) and synthetic opioids (such as fentanyl) also target the opioid receptors found within cells, on the golgi apparatus—receptors that our endogenous opioids do not act upon. 

According to John Hopkins Medicine, it can take as short as two weeks for you to become dependent on an opioid. And dependence can easily lead to addiction, also known as opioid use disorder.

Some common symptoms that could indicate opioid use disorder include:

  • Taking higher opioid dosages and for longer than the recommended period
  • Intense cravings for opioids
  • Inability to control your opioid use
  • Development of extreme withdrawal symptoms when stopping opioid use
  • Problems at home, work, or school caused by your opioid use
  • Doing risky things to buy opioids

Opioid Use Disorder and the Opioid Crisis

“The United States is currently experiencing an opioid epidemic which is, in turn, placing a huge economic burden on society,” Boris MacKey, addiction therapist at Rehab 4 Addiction, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“This economic strain ranges from the cost of prescriptions to the cost of addiction and healthcare treatment, as well as the cost involved with the criminal justice system,” MacKey adds. 

According to the CDC, the first wave of the opioid epidemic started in the 1990s. The medical industry was led to believe that opioids were not addictive, so this resulted in increased opioid prescriptions. But opioids are very addictive. Opioid addiction and overdose rates therefore soared, pushing overdose deaths to record highs.

The second wave of the opioid epidemic hit in 2010, with heroin causing a spike in overdose deaths. In 2013, illicitly-manufactured fentanyl and its associated fatalities sparked the third wave. Drug traffickers began adding fentanyl to street drugs like cocaine and heroin to increase their potency, which continues to contribute to opioid overdose deaths.

“Fentanyl is more potent than almost all other opioids and therefore more likely to cause overdoses,” Dr. Andrew Youssouf, medical director at Recovery Centers of America, shares with WebMD Connect to Care.

“Unfortunately, fentanyl is now found in the majority of street opioids, as it is cheaper and easier to produce than heroin or oxycodone. What’s dangerous is that people often think they are using heroin or oxycodone when they are actually taking fentanyl or fentanyl-laced substances,” Youssouf explains. 

Today, opioids have become the leading cause of overdose deaths. The CDC reports that more than 70,00 people died due to drug overdose in 2019, and 70% of these fatalities involved opioids. And, between 2018 to 2019, deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl increased by more than 15%. 

Opioids are highly addictive and have already taken many lives. If you or a loved one are struggling with opioid use disorder, help is available.

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.