What is the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids?
2017 has been the year of the opiate epidemic, and rarely a day goes by without news stories chronicling the impact the drug has had on families, communities, and our healthcare system. In 2016, opioid overdoses outpaced vehicle fatalities and gun homicides as the leading cause of death in the US for adults under the age of 50 (nytimes.com). Occasionally the words opioids and opiates are used interchangeably, so what’s the difference?
Opiates and opiate related drugs are organic chemical compounds that have been used medicinally and recreationally for thousands of years. Originally derived from Mediterranean and Arab regions, the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) was cultivated and processed by ancient civilizations to obtain potent chemical extracts. When consumed, these processed extracts bind to the brain’s opioid receptors, eliminating physical pain and promoting a euphoric experience. Some commonly known opiates include:
Today you would be shocked if a doctor prescribed you heroin after surgery, but you would likely be prescribed a chemical cousin of heroin: an opioid. Opioids refer to a classification of drugs, both organic and synthetic, that emulate the effects of opium. These drugs were initially intended for end of life treatment, cancer, and post-surgical treatment. However in the 1990s, the drug became more widely available after a successful marketing campaign that liberalized prescribing while at the same time discounting the drug’s potential addictive properties. Some of the most widely known and available opioids include:
- Vicodin (Hydrocodone)
Risks Associated With Opioids and Opiates
The risks associated with opiates and opioids are basically the same. Both classifications of drugs are habit forming and can lead to addictive disorders, overdose, and even death.
While opioid manufacturing is highly regulated with standardized levels of potency in place, there is still a heightened risk for overdose and abuse. If opioid medication is taken in excess, with alcohol or in combination with other drugs (including benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Ativan, or Valium), there is an increased risk of respiratory depression that may lead to death.
When opioids are exposed to the brain for an extended period of time, something interesting happens. The brain’s chemical balance begins to change resulting in what is now called opioid-induced hyperalgesia (OIH). OIH has the potential to lower one’s pain threshold, making discomforting actions seem excruciatingly painful. It can also lead to psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation.