Opioids vs Opiates: What’s the Difference?

Patients are frequently seen at urgent care, emergency rooms, and primary care offices requesting relief from pain.  If over-the-counter and topical treatments do not work, physicians and nurse practitioners may prescribe pain medications. These medications are usually opioids or opiates.  While these drugs address the patient’s pain, they also carry a certain amount of risk.

woman taking a pill

An Unhealthy Turn of Events

Opioids and Opiate drugs are addictive.  And without careful monitoring and a pain management plan, the lines between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ use become blurred. A patient can develop both drug dependency and addiction even while taking opiates and opioids as prescribed by their physician.

When the Medication Stops

When a patient stops taking opioids after even short term use,  he can experience withdrawal symptoms.  These symptoms are usually seen after long-term use of illegal opiates.  Individuals who can no longer get their drugs may turn to black-market alternatives such as heroin, doctor shopping, or medications prescribed to someone else.

Patient education is a critical component when using potentially addictive medications to treat pain. The more one understands, the more aware he or she is of the potential downfalls of drug dependency and addiction.

I’ve now mentioned both opioids and opiates. You may have seen them often used interchangeably, but they do differ. So how are they different?

Opioids vs. Opiates: What’s the Difference?

The two substances, opioids and opiates, both come from opium poppy seeds. Poppies contain opium, which is the main substance found in both types of drugs. The plants and flowers of this plant have been used as medicine for thousands of years. However, they have also been known to produce a high. Here’s how they differ:


The naturally occurring compounds that opium flowers produce are called Opiates. There are three types of opium alkaloids that can be created from the opiate compounds, including:

• Morphine

• Codeine

• Thebaine

In short, opiates are the natural compound from poppy seeds. Their medical uses vary, but their primary purpose is to provide relief from pain.


Opioids are similar to opiates except that they are either partially or entirely human-made. Scientists develop them to work with the opioid receptors in your brain. The most important difference between opioids and opiates is that opiates occur naturally, and opioids do not. Fentanyl is one example of an opioid substance.

What Does This Information Mean?

Both types of drugs have healing properties that, when combined with thorough medical care, can successfully treat patients. Providers must determine which type of drug is right for each case and cautiously use the correct form and dosage of each drug. Otherwise, a patient might form a debilitating or life-altering drug addiction or dependency.

There Are Options Available for Addicted Patients

Due to the addictive properties of both opioid and opiate drugs, patients need to understand the risk of dependency and addiction when they start taking these medications.  They should also be aware of the warning signs of addiction, such as having to take more of the medication to get the same effect from the medication.  Patients who become addicted to their pain medication can successfully manage their addiction by enrolling in a medication assisted treatment program, seeing a counselor, making lifestyle changes, and attending addiction treatment meetings.  If the addiction has become more severe, they may need to enroll in a residential-type treatment program to avoid relapse in the initial period.

Therapist writing down notes

If you are showing signs of prescription drug dependency or addiction, speak to your doctor right away.  It is also important to reach out to your significant other or family members to include them in your desire to stop using opiates and opioids.  Having a good support system in place will be an important part of your process of getting off opioids and opiates.

About the Author

Paula Nicola, M.D.
Dr. Nicola is the Facility Director at Renu. She is a trained and board certified medical doctor with specialized training in addiction medicine.

Related Posts