Opioid Vs Opiate
What is the difference between synthetic opioids and semi-synthetic opioids? And how do these relate to the opioid epidemic in general? These are excellent questions. In order to understand them, we should begin with a more basic analysis: opioids vs. opiates.
The consequences of these distinctions could not be more serious. All opioids are narcotic painkillers that can be both highly addictive and very dangerous. Many have overdosed on them in the past. If you or a loved one are on that path now, our professionals can provide the resources you need to find treatment and turn this potentially deadly situation around. Reach out today at 815-384-1376.
The Facts About Opiates And Opioids
Let’s look at some numbers. To begin, the number of overdose deaths rose by 4% between 2017 and 2018. Seems like a small number, right? That might be so if drug overdose deaths in 2018 weren’t already four times higher than they were in 1999. Almost 70% of the 67 thousand overdose deaths that happened in 2018 resulted from opioid abuse. From 1999 to 2018, approximately 450 thousand people died from opioid overdoses.
There is a reason why the US Government has labeled the opioid epidemic a national health crisis. Thousands of people are dying across the country. The crisis so far has come in three waves over the past 20 years.
The first wave began in the 1990s when pharmaceutical companies started to encourage doctors to prescribe opioid pain medications. This campaign resulted in more and more people becoming addicted to the drug. The second wave began in 2010 with a wave of overdose deaths from heroin. Finally, the third wave began in 2013. This last wave was marked by the increased use of synthetic opioids, many of which contained fentanyl, an opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin.
Even today, the opioid epidemic continues to be a significant public health crisis.
Before we address what opioids are, you should understand how the casual prescription of opioids snowballed into a crisis. This crisis eventually created the opioid epidemic.
Before the 1990s, the word ‘opioid’ was little-known outside of the medical community. During this period, pharmaceutical companies began to market various opioids as effective pain medications. Part of this campaign involved reassuring the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioids. In reality, this was false. Nevertheless, healthcare providers began to prescribe them more and more.
Naturally, when patients began to use the medication, many of them became addicted. As the addiction rate rose, so did substance abuse. Part of the problem was the sheer number of drugs being prescribed. Those who did not become addicted often had pills left over, creating a black market for prescription meds.
All opioids build physical tolerance. When a person takes opioids frequently, they will need to take more and more to get the same high. This leads to dependency and eventually full-blown addiction. And as things progress, many addicts begin to seek stronger versions of the drug. However, instead of taking more pills, they made the jump to one of the most potent opioids available: heroin.
Over the years, millions of lives have been ruined, and around 400,000 of them have been cut short. Opioids often lead to deadly overdoses. In 2019, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, settled a lawsuit by offering to pay out a settlement between $10-12 billion. The lawsuits alleged the company not only started the crisis but that its sales practices were deceptive.
The opioid epidemic is still something we deal with today. In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.
Opioid vs. Opiate
Now that we have things in perspective, we can begin to answer some basic questions. What is the difference between opioids and opiates? And how do those differences relate to synthetic opioids and semi-synthetic opioids? Believe it or not, the answer is simpler than you would think.
While the words’ opioid’ and ‘opiate’ are often used interchangeably, they are very different. Opiates can be a form of opioid, but not all opioids are opiates. In fact, the term ‘opiate’ only refers to natural opioids. These include illegal drugs like heroin as well as legal drugs like morphine and codeine. By “natural,” we mean any drug made directly from the seeds of the opium poppy. These plants grow in various regions around the world.
However, not all opioids come from the opium poppy. Opioids include all drugs that act like opium in the brain. These drugs interact with receptors in the body and brain to reduce the strength and intensity of pain. They also produce feelings of euphoria in most people. To sum up:
- Opioids: blanket term for natural opioids, semi-synthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids. Refers to any form of the drug that interacts with opioid receptors in the brain.
- Opiates: only drugs produced from a natural source, i.e., the opium poppy.
The largest class of opioids is opioid analgesics. (An analgesic is a pain-relieving drug.) These are narcotic painkillers prescribed as pain medication by a doctor. Because opioid analgesics produce feelings of pleasure (as well as relieving pain), they can become addictive. The drugs that triggered the opioid epidemic were first prescribed as opioid analgesics. But there are many different kinds of opioid analgesics.
Beyond opioids and opiates, there are even more categories that depend on how or where the drug has been produced.
Synthetic opioids are a class of opioids not produced from the opium plant. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, synthetic opioids are drugs that are
“…synthesized in a laboratory and that act on the same targets in the brain as natural opioids (e.g., morphine and codeine) to produce analgesic (pain relief) effects… Some synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and methadone, have been approved for medical use.”
Since synthetic opioids are made in a lab, they usually require scientists to make. This fact does not mean pharmaceutical companies produce all synthetic opioids. Drug cartels make them as well. They then sell them in powder form or as tablets.
By contrast, natural opioids are not made in a lab. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, “natural opioids are naturally occurring substances extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants.”
However, when we say natural opioids are not made in a lab, this does not mean they are not refined. Many times, they are. But scientists specifically create synthetic drugs in the lab by attempting to make a particular chemical. Often, these lab-made chemicals are not the same ones found in poppies, but they still act the same in the brain.
Natural opioids are produced around the world from Southeast Asia to Latin America. It is an incredibly lucrative black-market trade.
Semi-synthetic opioids are a class of opioids between natural and synthetic opioids. These drugs need more than simple extraction and refinement from the poppy. First, the precursor drug is taken out of the poppy plant. Then, it is chemically altered to enter its final form.
The class of semi-synthetic opioids includes drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone. Out of all of these, oxycodone is perhaps the best-known. When Purdue Pharma began selling opioids in the 1990s, the drug in question was oxycodone (sold as OxyContin). Oxycodone is a semi-synthetic opioid with analgesic action that resembles the opiate morphine. Doctors prescribe oxycodone for moderate to severe pain. Oxycodone serves as an analgesic, but it also acts in some capacity as a sedative.
Like the other opioids, oxycodone has the same negative effects. In many cases, it might even have a higher potential for abuse and dependency. Many of the semi-synthetic opioids are just as dangerous as illegal drugs like heroin.
The Dangers of Opioid Use
At this point, it should be clear that all opioids are dangerous. All of them have the capacity to be abused. Opioids can make people feel very relaxed and euphoric, which is what makes people want to try opioids in the first place.
The reason this is dangerous is that it is highly addictive. The high itself is not what causes us to want to use regularly. Rather, opioids hijack the reward center of our brain. By blocking pain signals and releasing massive amounts of dopamine, the drug rewires the part of the brain responsible for forming habits. When this happens, it creates a powerful addiction. We end up wanting to do more and more, and taking the drug is continuously reinforced.
Furthermore, opioids pose a wide variety of dangers. Even with legitimately prescribed medications, there is a possibility of overdose. Overdoses happen when someone takes so much of the drug that it suppresses basic bodily functions. Since opioids slow our rate of breathing, users often suffocate. In some cases, blood oxygen gets low enough to cause coma or permanent brain damage.
Most addicts become aware of the fact that they can overdose on opioids early on. However, since the addiction is so strong, they have a hard time giving up on their substance abuse. This is a shame since there are many modern treatment programs available to help. Behavioral therapy and rehab programs use science-based techniques to help addicts learn to manage their addictions. Many of these programs have very high rates of success.
How to Find More Help
Opioids are a severe and dangerous drug. Now that you know their history and how they work, you should also understand that there is no shame in developing an opioid addiction. Many people become addicted due to misguided medical advice or simple mistakes. The important thing to know is that no one is alone in the opioid epidemic. We are all in this together.
If you or someone you know is suffering from an addiction to opioids, there is help available. Inpatient and outpatient rehab clinics are great opportunities to seek assistance on the road to recovery. Many outpatient programs allow you to continue with your daily responsibilities. In addition, there are many other forms of therapy and counseling available.
Whether you are interested in any of the above forms of treatment or simply have questions, feel free to call us at 815-384-1376. There is nothing we can’t get through together. We would be more than happy to help you with whatever you need.