Is There a Difference Between Opioids and Opiates?

At one point in history, opioids and opiates were not used interchangeably. The differences between these two terms can help you better understand this class of drugs.

Opioids may refer to prescription drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin and fentanyl. These are synthetic drugs that operate on the opioid receptors and reward center of the brain. Opiates may refer to alkaloids that come directly from the poppy flower. This includes morphine and codeine. They also operate on the brain’s opioid receptors and reward center.

Synthetic opioids can be much stronger than opiates. This is an important difference. For example, the prescription opioid fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Opioids made in China and shipped to the U.S. can be several hundred or thousands of times stronger than morphine. Carfentanil is an estimated 10,000 times stronger than morphine. It has been used as a chemical weapon (the 2002 Moscow Theater Crisis for example) or to sedate elephants.

Can We Help People Addicted to Opioids and Opiates?

Although some people may use opioids and opiates as separate terms, both have similar mechanisms of action on the brain. Both are addictive and potentially deadly.

CDC statistics show these drugs killed 33,000 Americans in 2015. To put this into perspective, car accidents killed 38,000 that same year. Solutions to this crisis should seek to prevent new cases of addiction, treat people who are addicted, and eliminate supplies produced by pill mills and the black market. This will take a combined effort from educators, lawmakers, law enforcement, the medical community, attorneys and their clients, and our fellow Americans. Addicts need our help, not our judgment.

Addiction to opioids (and addiction in general) is a public health problem. There is no cure for addiction, but there are treatments that are designed to reduce the risk of relapse.



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