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Opioids vs. Opiates – What’s the Difference?

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The difference between opioids vs. opiates encompasses a range of factors that all work together. Drug type, drug effect and the body’s response all play into differentiating between opioids vs. opiates.

Natural Opiates

The opium poppy plant has given rise to an entire class of drugs known as opiates. Natural opiates represent the poppy plant in its purest forms.

Some of the more commonly known natural opiates include:

  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Thebaine
  • Opium

Opiates, as a group, encompass opioid drugs, many of which are derived from opium poppy plant alkaloid compounds. While opiates and opioids do encompass two separate classes of analgesics, opioids vs. opiates entails much more than the drugs themselves.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, most opiate drugs produce analgesic effects in terms of blocking pain sensations and alleviating pain symptoms. Opiates work by stimulating neurotransmitter production in the brain, central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract.

These effects not only account for the drug’s pain-relieving effects, but also set off a chain reaction within the brain’s chemical system. With continued drug use, this chain reaction paves the way for addiction to take hold. As far as opioids vs. opiates go, both drug classes carry a high potential for abuse and addiction.


The Body’s Opioid System

The body’s houses its own opioid system that’s responsible for regulating pain sensations throughout the central nervous system. In this respect, opioids vs. opiates have to do with how opiates interact with the body’s opioid system.

Opiates stimulate opioid cell receptor sites throughout the the brain, central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract. These interactions trigger the release of neurotransmitter chemicals or endorphins, the body’s own “feel good” chemicals.

Opioid Agonist Drugs

Opioid agonist drugs exist as synthetic and semi-synthetic formulations of natural opiates. While opioids do interact with the body’s chemical system in the same way as natural opiates, as synthesized compounds, opioids can produce a range of different effects compared to their natural predecessors.

Some of the more commonly prescribed opioid agonist drugs include:

  • Fentanyl
  • Percocet
  • Demerol
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone

As far as opioids vs. opiates go, opioid agonist-type drugs are designed to produce opiate-like effects.

Interestingly enough, opiate agonists can also be used in addiction treatment as a form of drug replacement therapy. As synthetically made compounds, drugs used in addiction treatment produce slow-acting effects without producing a “high.” These drugs include:

  • Methadone
  • Suboxone
  • LAMM
  • Subutex
Opioid Antagonists

Whereas opiate agonists stimulate opioid cell receptor sites, opioid antagonists block cell sites and thereby prevent them from being stimulated. Opioid antagonist drugs work well as medication treatments for people coming off chronic opiate addictions, according to the U. S. National Library of Medicine.

Opioid antagonists also belong to the synthetic class of opiate drugs. Rather than feed the body’s opioid system, opioid antagonists use the opioids vs. opiates effect to help reduce the risk of relapse in addiction recovery.

Ultimately, the opioids vs. opiates difference has more to do with how a drug interacts with the body than the category of opiates to which it belongs.

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