Understanding the Types and Effects of Opioids and Opiates

Different effects of opiates and opioids

$25.4 billion—that’s how much the global opioid market was worth in 2018. Additional market research projects that opioids will see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 1.8 percent between 2019 and 2026—a close match to the projected 2% CAGR of the world’s most popular class of drugs, statins.

The reason for opioids drugs’ incredible value and growth is associated with a rise in chronic pain caused by conditions such fibromyalgia, cancer, and arthritis. Unfortunately, the rise in opioids is also associated with a dramatic increase in opioid dependency, abuse, overdose, and death—as many as 130 deaths per day in the United States alone.

As doctors, scientists, and the public alike all try to make sense of the harrowing drug epidemic, it’s helpful to clarify some relevant terms people may come across in their research. This includes two terms many people don’t realize are distinct from each other:

Opiates and opioids.

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Opiates vs Opioids: What is the Difference?

“Opioid” is a broad term used to describe three distinct types of opioid drugs: opiates, synthetic  opioids, and semi-synthetic opioids. All three types of drugs act on opioid receptors within the body and mediate and influence pain, reward, and addiction behavior. (Notably, the human body also creates its own opioids—called endogenous opioids—which interact with opioid receptors, too. These include endorphins, dynorphins, and enkephalins.)

How are these three types of opioid drugs different?

  • Opiates: these are pain-relieving chemicals found naturally in the opium (poppy) plant, Papaver somniferum. The opium plant, which has been cultivated for thousands of years, contains at least 20 different types of opiates—also known as opium alkaloids—although only four are used medicinally.
  • Synthetic Opioids: pain-relieving chemicals created in a laboratory. These man-made drugs mimic opiates and can activate the same receptors in the human body, however they are not derived from opiates themselves.
  • Semi-Synthetic Opioids: pain-relieving chemicals created in a laboratory that are also derived from naturally-occurring opiates.

Another way to say it is that all opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates. Lately, the term “opiate” is becoming less common, and many in the medical community are simply using “opioids” to describe all three types of drugs, whether natural or man-made.

This simplification makes some sense. Remember: all three types of drugs interact with and bind to opioid receptors in the body. This means that all three can be used to relieve moderate to chronic pain. Both opiates and opioids also can lead to emotional and physical numbing, decreased respiratory and heart rate, constipation, feelings of euphoria.

Perhaps the most important fact to realize is that all types of opioids—whether derived from a poppy plant or created in a lab—can be dangerously addictive and have a high risk for misuse, dependency, and fatal overdose.

This in fact may be the most important point to remember:

It’s not wise nor realistic to assume a “naturally” occurring opiate is in any way safer than a synthetic or semi-synthetic opioid. All three kinds of opioids can be extremely dangerous and should be prescribed and used with undue caution.

Common Types of Opiates and Opioids

What exactly do these different opioid drugs look like—prescription or otherwise? The following list includes the most common types of opiates, semi-synthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids used both legally and illegally:


  • Morphine: this is the most abundant type of opiate found in opium poppy. Common brand names include Kadian and MS Contin.
  • Codeine: while not as highly concentrated in opium poppy as morphine, codeine is still a widely used natural chemical for pain relief and for the creation of semi-synthetic opioids. It’s also found in cough suppressing medications.
  • Thebaine: this opiate is considered the most toxic, and isn’t used in its natural state. However, thebaine is used to create semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone.
  • Papaverine: this type of opiate is usually used as a vasodilator, meaning it helps relaxes and opens blood vessels. This helps improves blood flow in people with circulation problems and high blood pressure.

Opioids (Semi-Synthetic)

  • Heroin: this illicit drug is very similar to morphine and is actually derived from morphine and acetic anhydride. Heroin is also called diamorphine or diacetylmorphine.
  • Oxycodone: it’s known by its more common brand names OxyContin and Percocet.
  • Hydrocodone: best recognized by common brand names like Vicodin and Lortab.
  • Hydromorphone: known by the brand name Dilaudid.
  • Oxymorphone: known by the brand name Opana ER.

Opioids (Synthetic)

  • Methadone: prescribed by many doctors as an attempt to help people with opioid use disorder and heroin addiction, methadone is also known by brand names Dolophine and Methadose.
  • Fentanyl: an incredibly powerful analgesic drug, this medication can be sold under the brand name Duragesic.
  • Meperidine: better known by its brand name Demerol.
  • Tramadol: Ultram and Ultracet are common brand names for tramadol.


Naturally occurring opiates, synthetic opioids, and semi-synthetic opioids are different types of the same powerful drug collectively known as “opioids.” All can be incredibly addictive, dangerous, and habit-forming, and all are driving the epidemic of opioid use disorder and overdose deaths.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and need help with opioid use disorder treatment, we invite you to contact our staff at Waismann Treatment. Our experienced team of doctors and healthcare providers focuses on the individuals who trust us with their care—not on just the disorder they’re living with.

By understanding each patient’s unique needs, beliefs, goals, health history, and values, we’re able to craft an effective, efficient, and empathetic treatment plan that can help them find relief from the grips of addiction and dependency. Contact us today to find out how we can help you or your loved one’s journey toward recovery and wellness.