Though people may believe opioids and opiates are the same, there are slight differences. Knowing the differences can help people better understand the opioid epidemic.

The opioid crisis in the United States is a significant, nation-wide problem. The issue is complicated, but it becomes more challenging when so many people do not fully understand what these drugs are. Many people only have a vague idea of what an opioid is or how it compares to an opiate.

According to recent polling conducted by The Recovery Village, out of 400 people surveyed, more than 95% have heard of opiates and opioids but 45% were unsure of what the differences between the terms are. Though organizations like the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begun to use the terms interchangeably or have abandoned the term opiate, learning the difference between opioids vs. opiates may help clarify the differences between the two.

Article at a Glance:

  • The term “opioid” refers to all substances (natural or synthetic) that engage the brain’s opioid receptors
  • Opiates are naturally-occurring opioids
  • The brain cannot distinguish between opiates and opioids
  • Opioids and opiates have the power to produce a variety of physical and psychological effects

What Is an Opioid?

An opioid is any substance that creates an impact on the opioid receptors in the brain. Once the opioid attaches to the receptors, the substances can trigger desirable effects including:

  • A euphoric high
  • A lower sensation of pain
  • Less coughing
  • Reduced risk of diarrhea

Every “Opioid” substance sparks these effects in the brain, regardless of whether the drug is:

  • A naturally occurring substance
  • A semi-synthetic substance made in a laboratory from natural products
  • A fully-synthetic substance completely formulated in a laboratory

Opioids come in a wide range of strengths and forms. They may be pills, powders or liquids that people ingest by swallowing, snorting, smoking or injecting. They may be relatively weak or potent enough to kill an elephant easily.

Not only do opioids affect the brain, but they can affect the body as well. Someone using an opioid may feel:

  • Sleepy
  • Confused
  • Nauseous
  • Constipated
  • Slowed or labored breathing

What Is an Opiate?

Opiates are a type of opioid. Opiates are opioids that are found in the poppy plant or made from a substance found in the poppy plant.

All opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates. If any aspect of a drug is synthetic, the drug is not an opiate.

Whether the substance is an opioid or an opiate, the brain and the body react in similar ways. Opiates, like opioids, produce changes to the mind and body of the person who consumes it.

Main Differences Between Opioid and Opiates

As mentioned, the most significant difference that separates opioids from opiates is the origin of the substance. Does the substance exist naturally? Then it is an opiate and therefore, also an opioid. Does any part of the substance originate in a laboratory? Then it is not an opiate and is only an opioid.

There can be confusion with substances like heroin. In fact, heroin is sometimes mistakenly referred to as an opiate. Heroin does not occur naturally, but it is created from morphine, which does occur naturally. So heroin is an opioid, but its parent drug, morphine, is an opiate.

People may argue that using both terms only creates misperceptions of the substances. According to The Recovery Village poll, about 54% of respondents correctly identified codeine and morphine as opioids. When asked about opiates, only 39% listed codeine and 34% morphine, even though these are both technically opiates.

Examples of Opioids and Opiates

Many substances are classified as opiates and opioids. Some of these substances are familiar to many people, like morphine or heroin, but some substances are less common to hear about, like pethidine or thebaine. Becoming familiar with the names and being able to classify some of the more common substances can be helpful to someone looking to understand the differences between the two.


All substances that activate the opioid receptors are opioids, but the drugs that exclusively opioids include:

These synthetic or semi-synthetic drugs include many commonly prescribed painkillers. They are also typically potent and contribute to the high rates of opioid overdoses.


Opiates can be prescription or illicit. Several frequently used opiates are:

  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Thebaine

If you struggle with an addiction to opioids, contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about how personalized addiction treatment can address your addiction and any co-occurring mental health disorders. You deserve a healthier future. Call today.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more

Bloom, J. “ACSH Explans: What’s the Difference Be[…]Opioids and Opiates?” American Council on Science and Health, October 27, 2017. Accessed June 9, 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. “Prescription Pain Medications (Opioids).” May 2019. Accessed June 9, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.