What Is the Difference Between Opioids and Opiates?

Nowadays the words “opioid” and “opiate” have been used interchangeably; however, there are differences between them.


Opioids also called analgesics, are prescription medications used by doctors to treat moderate to severe pain. Opioids were also referred to as narcotics, however, due to the negative association the term “narcotic” has with illegal drugs, it has fallen out of use in medical settings.

The term opioid refers to the drug that acts on opioid receptors in the brain. The term opioid comprises of all drugs, synthetic, semi-synthetic, and naturally occurring substances that act at one of the three main opioid receptor systems (mu, kappa, and delta).

Opioids can be categorized as:


According to the American Council on Science and Health, the term opiate refers to a subset of opioids that are either derived from poppy or synthesized from any drug that is found in poppy or synthesized from one, either naturally occurring or synthetic.

Opioids encompass both naturally occurring and synthetic drugs, so do opiates. For example, heroin is not found in nature. It is synthesized from morphine. Yet it technically belongs in the opiate class simply because its synthetic precursor happened to come from poppy.

Some of the most commonly used medications on the list of synthetic opiates include:

List of Semisynthetic Opiates

Both synthetic and natural opium alkaloids go into the making of semisynthetic opiates. Small concentrations of natural opium alkaloids exist in various amounts depending on the type of drug.

As part of the list of synthetic opiates, semisynthetic medications hold their own in terms of abuse and addictive potential when compared to strictly synthetic opiates.

Semisynthetic opiate medications include:

  • Oxymorphone – contains the natural alkaloid, thebaine
  • Hydrocodone – contains the natural alkaloid, codeine
  • Oxycodone – contains the natural alkaloid, thebaine
  • Hydromorphone – contains the natural alkaloid, morphine

Opioids and opiates are both chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain. Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused (taken in a different way or in a larger quantity than prescribed, or taken without a doctor’s prescription). Regular use—even as prescribed by a doctor—can lead to dependence and addiction and, when misused or used in combination with other substances, opioid pain relievers can lead to overdose incidents and deaths.

Although opioids are technically categorized under the term narcotic, due to the negative association the term “narcotic” has with illegal drugs, it has fallen out of use in medical settings. The narcotic definition pertains to an agent that produces insensibility or narcosis.  When thinking about these terms broadly, you can think of opiates as being a subclass of opioids, and opioids as a subclass of narcotics.

No matter how these prescription painkillers are classified as, or how it was created, it’s important to speak with a healthcare provider and understand their effects before taking them as an estimated 1.9 million Americans have become addicted to opioid painkillers. It is shocking to know that Americans take an estimated 80% of the world’s opioid painkiller supply.

Considering the growing opioid epidemic, before starting on any prescription painkiller one should be wary and consider the risks and benefits of the treatment. Having an open dialogue with a health care provider and discussing valid concerns in regards to long term or even short term use of opioids can “bring to the table” other treatment options that can be effective as well.

If you or a loved need help with opioid addiction, Florida Center for Recovery in Saint Lucie County offers comprehensive treatment through an all-inclusive inpatient detox.
To learn more contact our admissions office at: 800-851-3291 from 8:00 am to midnight.

For more information about our opioids and treatment visit:

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