The Difference Between Opiates and Opioids

The word “opiate” typically brings to mind the opium poppy plant from which it originates. On the other hand, the word “opioid” is less common and refers to a different substance altogether. Although it is a common mistake to categorize these narcotic substances together, the clear differences between these drugs affects the way you should recover from their addictions.

Opiods vs. Opiates

An opiate is a substance derived from the poppy plant (which contains opium). Opiates are sometimes called “natural” since the active ingredients are made by nature, not people. An opioid is either a fully synthetic or semi-synthetic alkaloid that mimics the action of a natural alkaloid. On the other hand, opioids may act just like opiates do in the body due to their similar molecules, but it is a different substance, one that people make in a lab with an opiate as the base.

However, these two drugs are often spoken of interchangeably. On the street, “heroin” may mean synthetic, natural or semi-synthetic compounds. Additionally, manufactured opioids like OxyContin are sometimes called “synthetic heroin,” which only adds to the confusion. In its pure form, heroin is an opioid since it is chemically manufactured, even though molecules from the opium plant are used in the process. In other words, some of heroin’s active ingredient molecules are not found in nature, so it is an unnatural substance.

Addition to Opiates: An Epidemic

The World Health Organization estimates that approximately two million Americans are addicted to prescription opiates. Opiate addiction is one of the hardest addictions to beat, in part because this condition changes brain chemistry. It alters the brain’s reaction to certain stimuli, because it directly affects what is referred to as the “reward circuit.” This area of the brain gets activated whenever opiates are taken: it triggers a surge of the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine; once released into the body, it rewards the user for taking drugs. As a result, the brain will reinforce behaviors that encourage drug use, which tricks the mind into thinking that using drugs is a good thing.

In time, the body depends on opiates to function normally. Withdrawal symptoms kick in when feel-good chemicals drop. Additionally, the mind also sees opiates as necessary for survival, which is why cravings can occur months and even years after getting clean. Furthermore, abstinence alone is rarely sufficient treatment due to how drugs change the brain.

Getting Sober from Opiates

The first step in the recovery process is breaking free from denial. The sooner you admit that you need help, the better your chances of recovery become. According to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, treatment is the next critical step to take, because getting off painkillers without help is unrealistic for the majority of people. What is more, quitting opiates can be dangerous and even fatal, which is why Psychology Today warns that people should never stop taking these drugs “cold turkey.” Medical supervision is necessary to manage the following notorious withdrawal symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Muscle aches
  • Anxiety and agitation

Constant supervision during detox is a major benefit of inpatient treatment, because you can address these symptoms thoroughly and safely.

Deciding upon a drug-maintenance program is another foundational task to be accomplished in early treatment. Many people who abuse opioids suffer from long-term brain changes—to avoid relapsing on opiates, patients must treat their condition with replacement drugs that reduce symptoms of dependence. Two popular replacement drugs include Subutex (a medication that contains only buprenorphine hydrochloride) and Suboxone (which contains an ingredient called naloxone, which guards against misuse). Frequently, Subutex is given during the first few days of treatment, while Suboxone is used during the maintenance phase of treatment. Recovery experts can help people choose among additional medications, such as the following examples:

  • Methadone is a long-acting opioid that activates the same receptors in the brain as painkillers, so it eliminates withdrawal symptoms without providing a high. The dose can be slowly tapered to prevent physical dependence.
  • Subutex and Suboxone both activate opioid receptors, which reduce cravings and prevent withdrawal. Subutex is given early in treatment and is not addictive, while Suboxone usually requires weaning.
  • Clonidine is a blood-pressure medicine reduces the “fight or flight” response that skyrockets during withdrawal. This drug does not affect cravings, and it is typically combined with other medications.

Recovery must encompass emotional care, too. Both individual and group counseling may become part of a daily rehab schedule, as they both address risk factors that gave rise to addiction in the first place. Recovering addicts may also be assessed for co-occurring mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Because overcoming opiate dependence is notoriously difficult, it is important for newly sober people to plan for avoiding relapse; join a 12-Step support group to stay motivated and to maintain recovery.

Help for Opiate Addiction

If you or someone you love struggles with opiate addiction, then know that help is available. Admissions coordinators at our toll-free, 24 hour helpline can guide you to wellness, so do not go it alone. Please call now to learn how you can find the road to recovery.

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