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Opiates vs. Opioids: What’s the Difference?

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Oct 24, 2023 • 7 cited sources
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The terms opiate and opioid are often used interchangeably. However, technically they mean separate things.

The term opiate refers to natural drugs derived from the sap of a poppy plant that act on opioid receptors. Drugs like heroin and morphine fall into this category. [ 1 ] 

The term opioid refers to any substance either synthetic (man-made) or non-synthetic that act on opioid receptors. 

All Opiates are opioids, but some not all opioids are not opiates because they are synthetic.  

Keep reading to find out more about the similarities and differences between opiates and opioids. 

What Are Opiates?

An opiate is a drug extracted or refined from natural substances, typically poppy sap or fibers.[2] 

Examples of opiates include the following:

  • Codeine
  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • Opium

What Are Opioids?

The opioid classification is larger, and it includes drugs that originate from both natural and man-made substances. 

Examples of opioids include the following:

  • Demerol
  • Fentanyl
  • Methadone
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydromorphone 
  • Fentanyl 

What Do Opioids & Opiates Have in Common?

Opiates and opioids both work on the same receptors within the brain and body. Both are addictive.[4]

Both opioids and opiates cause overdoses, and they are both responsible for overdose deaths as people switch from one to the other.

Is One More Dangerous? 

No. Some patients get confused by this: they think that opiates, which are non-synthetic/”natural” are somehow “safer” than opioids that are synthetic.

However, the risk of overdose of an opioid has more to do with its potency than its classification as an opiate or opioid. For example, heroin is technically an “opiate” because it is naturally derived from poppy seed. However it is MUCH more potent than certain opioids like oxycodone (synthetic) and carries a higher risk of overdose. It also is likely more addictive. 

Therefore, it is a misunderstanding to think that an opiate is safer just because it is derived from a natural substance. Much more important is the dose, potency, and mechanism of delivery (IV tends to be more potent than oral opioids, for example.)

What to Do If You’re Concerned About Opioid Use

Whether you use opiates or opioids, know that these drugs are dangerous. They can be very hard to quit using once you start. [6] All drugs within this class carry a high risk of overdose and a high risk of dependency/addiction. If you are using these medications – either for a short or long period of time – it is important to monitor yourself for any concerning behaviors or overuse or misuse, and speak openly and honestly with your doctors about any concerns you have. 

If you do have concern about misusing opioids, MAT can help. 

Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) programs use therapies like Suboxone (buprenorphine/naloxone) to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings, so you can safely stop misusing opiates and opioids. [7] 

Bicycle Health is a leading MAT provider. Telemedicine techniques bring doctors to you via phone or computer, and you can fill your prescriptions at a pharmacy near you. This allows you to address your opioid use disorder safely, effectively and discretely if so desired.  

Contact us to find out about how Bicycle Health works and find out if this model is right for you.


Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Commonly Used Terms. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 2021. Accessed April 2023.
  2. Opiates or Opioids: What's the Difference? State of Oregon. Accessed April 2023.
  3. Opium Poppy. Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed April 2023.
  4. Dose of Reality: Get the Facts on Opioids. Wisconsin Department of Health Services. April 2023. Accessed April 2023.
  5. Opioid Data Analysis and Resources. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 2021. Accessed April 2023.
  6. Opioid Use Disorder and Treatment: Challenges and Opportunities. BMC Health Services Research. November 2019. Accessed April 2023.
  7. Effects of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Opioid Use Disorder on Functional Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Rand Health Quarterly. June 2020. Accessed April 2023.

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