The terms opiate and opioid are used interchangeably in medical practices because opiates and opioids affect the same receptors in the brain tissues and have the same effects on the central nervous system. However, there is a difference between the two terms. Opiates are naturally occurring drugs derived from the opium poppy plant, and include drugs like opium and morphine. Opioids are man-made drugs derived from morphine, and include synthetic drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl.
All opiates are considered opioids, but not all opioids are naturally occurring opiates. The term opioid is an umbrella term that encompasses both naturally occurring opiates and synthetic opioid drugs.
While opiates are prescribed to relieve acute pain, prolonged use can lead to opiate addiction (opioid addiction) and abuse. Common opioids include prescription painkillers such as dilaudid, oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl, as well as the illicit drug heroin. Opiate addiction (including opioid addiction) is the leading cause of the drug overdose in the United States, with 47,600 deaths attributed to prescription and illicit opioids in 2017. Opiate addiction is a disease that has destroyed the lives and families of millions. While there is no cure for opiate addiction, this disease can be treated in drug addiction rehabilitation or drug rehab.
To fully understand opiate and opioid addiction, it’s important to understand what makes these drugs so addictive, as well as their intended medical purposes.
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What Are Opiates?
Opiates are drugs used to treat pain derived from the opium plant. These substances are highly addictive and carry a high risk for opiate addiction (including opioid addiction) for anyone who takes them for a prolonged period, even if they are used as prescribed.
The Sumerians first cultivated the opium poppy plant, or Papaver somniferum, in 3,400 B.C. They referred to it as the “joy plant,” and the wonder drug was soon passed around the world as merchants learned of its multiple uses. Opium was not only used to relieve pain, but it was also used to induce sleep and relieve bowel issues. Opiates are also frequently used to treat coughs.
Opium byproducts have been used for medical purposes for many years. These ingredients occur naturally in the sap of the opium poppy. Natural derivatives of the opium poppy plant are called opiates. Opiates can be further manipulated synthetically. Such man-made opiates are called opioids. Collectively, these opiate and opioid derivatives of the poppy plant include morphine, codeine, oxycodone and heroin, among other opioid drugs.
While there is no major difference in the effectiveness of the drugs, opioids are synthetic or partly synthetic drugs that act similarly to opiates. With opioids, the active ingredients are synthesized by chemical processes. However, because they are similar in how they affect the body and brain, the terms opiate and opioid are often used interchangeably.
For almost as long as opiates have existed, they have been used for both medicinal and recreational (i.e., to get high) purposes. Opiates exist on the drug market in a few different forms: as prescription pharmaceuticals (morphine, codeine, methadone, etc.), and illicit street drugs (heroin, opium, etc).
All of these drugs can be abused, potentially leading to opiate addiction (opioid addiction), even if they are prescription medications. People frequently refer to opioids using slang words and phrases to evade police attention. Some of the street names for a variety of opiates and opioids include:
- Nose drops
- Black tar
- China white
- Chinese H
- White dynamite
Common Opiates & Intended Use
Opiate pain medications are prescribed mainly to treat moderate to severe pain. In most cases, opiates are prescribed following surgery or a medical procedure. Common legal opiate drugs include:
- Morphine is a highly addictive, naturally occurring substance found in the opium plant
- Meperidine, similar to morphine, is a synthetic prescription medication
- Codeine, a less powerful but still addictive substance, is primarily used as a cough suppressant. Codeine is typically prescribed as a combination medication.
- Hydrocodone is a semi-synthetic opioid. It’s the most frequently prescribed opiate medication on the market and is included in drugs like Lortab and Vicodin.
- Oxycodone is another semi-synthetic opioid. Common brand names are Percocet (a combination drug containing oxycodone) and Oxycontin.
- Fentanyl is a highly addictive opiate that is produced synthetically, so it is known as a synthetic opioid analgesic. Fentanyl is commonly prescribed as a transdermal patch.
What Do Opiates Look Like?
Opiates can range in appearance. Drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone come in pill form. Because many opioids are combination drugs that are formulated with acetaminophen or aspirin, different pill colors can denote different strengths of the drug. These combinations may be pink, blue, peach or yellow.
Opiates are usually swallowed as pills to treat pain. However, if someone is misusing opioids, they may use an unapproved route of administration to feel the effects faster, including:
- Chewing the drug in order to increase absorption
- Crushing and snorting pills for faster entry into the bloodstream
- Dissolving crushed pills in water and injecting them intravenously
- Misusing opioid intravenous solutions (morphine, hydrocodone and fentanyl are manufactured as intravenous solutions for use in hospitals)
People who struggle with opiate addiction (opioid addiction) may store their pills in traditional orange pill bottles or hide them in mint tins or candy jars. If the person crushes their pills and snorts them, they may keep the powder in small bags, twisted in a piece of cling wrap or in a foil pouch.
Many people begin their opiate addiction (opioid addiction) with a legitimate prescription. These people may have had surgery or an illness for which they were prescribed an opioid painkiller that they became addicted to. For many people, prescription painkiller use leads to heroin addiction. In many cases, people who are in treatment for heroin addiction resorted to using heroin because prescription pills were more expensive and harder to obtain.
Heroin is derived from morphine and is typically sold in powder form. Heroin varies in color from white to brown. Besides powder form, heroin can also be found as granules and brown crystalline pieces called “rocks.”