Opiates Guide

Learn More About Opiates


Table of Contents

What are Opiates?

Opiates, also referred to as narcotics, are a group of drugs medically prescribed to relieve pain. Opiates are naturally found in the Asian Poppy Plants’ seeds.1 This includes opium, morphine, heroin, and codeine. Other opiates, such as meperidine (Demerol), are created in a lab.

Brief History

In 1803, German scientist Friedrich Sertürner isolated morphine (an opiate) from opium. He was successful in discovering the first opiate, taken from opium.

During the U.S. Civil War, Morphine was widely distributed to soldiers as a painkiller. This use resulted in 400,000 soldiers developing morphine addiction.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, scientists looked for a less addictive form of morphine. In 1874, English chemist Alder Wright refined heroin from a morphine base. The drug was meant to be a safe alternative to morphine.2

Drug Class and Schedule

Opiates are classified as Schedule II drugs.3 Schedule II drugs, substances, or chemicals are drugs with a high potential for abuse. The use of these substances could potentially lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. They are also considered dangerous.

Uses for Opiates

Opiates are used to block pain reception in the brain.4 Opiates and opioids work by binding to specific receptors in the brain, mimicking the effects of pain-relieving chemicals produced naturally. These drugs bind to opiate receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other locations in the body. This binding blocks the pain. Opiates can cause feelings of well-being and cause side effects, including nausea, confusion, and drowsiness.

What Do They Treat?

According to the U.S. Library of Medicine, prescription opioids mostly treat moderate to severe pain, though some opioids can treat coughing and diarrhea.5

Common Opiates

Research says heroin accounts for 90 percent of opiate abuse in the United States.6 Sometimes opiates with legal, medical uses are also abused, such as:

  • Morphine
  • Meperidine
  • Paregoric (which contains opium)
  • Cough syrups that contain codeine

Opiates vs. Opioids

Opiate and opioid use is a widespread U.S. national public health crisis. Though opiate and opioid are synonymously used, there are some specific distinctions when comparing opiates vs. opioids.

What is the Distinction?

Opiate refers to any drug derived from naturally occurring opium found in the poppy plants.7 Types of opiates include opium, codeine, morphine, and opium.3

The term opioid, on the other hand, is broader and refers to any drug synthesized from an opiate that produces similar effects. Examples of opioid drugs include heroin, hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet), and methadone.3 An opioid is any substance, either natural, synthetic, or partially synthetic, that binds to opioid receptors in the brain and produces opiate-like effects.

Common Opioids

The three main types of opioid drugs are opiates, synthetic opioids, and semi-synthetic opioids. Semi-synthetic opioids are created in labs from naturally occurring opiates. Synthetic opioids are made completely in a lab.7

Common opioids include:

  • Opium
  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Thebaine

Side Effects of Opiates

Though Opiates have enough strength to relieve severe pain and produce a relaxed feeling, the wanted effects come with unwanted effects.8

Short-Term Opiate Side Effects

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Euphoria
  • Slowed breathing

Long-Term Opiate Side Effects

The long-term effects of opiate or opioid misuse can have a strong neurological long-term effect.8 Opioid abuse can cause slowed breathing, which can cause a condition when too little oxygen reaches the brain, called hypoxia. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term psychological and neurological effects, including coma, permanent brain damage, or death. Researchers are also investigating the long-term effects of opioid use disorder on the brain, including whether the damage can be reversed.

Opiate Withdrawal

Cutting back from Opiates causes withdrawal symptoms, even as soon as the last dosage was taken.9 Early symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Increased tearing
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Yawning

Late symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Opiate Overdose

Being Schedule II drugs, legal prescription opiates have higher risks of abuse and overdose.8 An opioid overdose occurs when enough of the drug is abused to produce life-threatening symptoms or death. When an overdose on an opioid medication happens, breathing often slows or stops. This slowing can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, which can cause a coma, permanent brain damage, or death.

Misconceptions about Opiates

One large misconception about legal opiates is that having a prescription lowers the risk of developing an addiction. Many individuals with an opiate use disorder commonly started with a medically prescribed reason to use opiate drugs.

Medically monitoring the dosage and increase of dosage by a professional is an essential part of decreasing addiction risks.10 Higher dosages of opioids increase the risk of overdose and death, and even relatively low dosages (20-50 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) per day) can increase risk.

The second-largest misconception about Opiate drugs is that the larger the Opiate dosage prescription, the better the pain relief.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, higher dosages haven’t been shown to reduce pain in the long term.10 One randomized trial found no difference in pain or function between increasing the dose (with average final dosage 52 MME) and maintenance of current dosage (average final dosage 40 MME)

Treating Addiction to Opiates

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a wide range of treatments, including medicines and behavioral therapies, can help people recovery from opioid addiction.8
Two medicines, buprenorphine, and methadone work by binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain. These medications can reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Another medicine, naltrexone, blocks opioid receptors and prevents opioid drugs from affecting.

Behavioral therapies to treat addiction to opioids help modify attitudes and behaviors related to drug use. These therapies also increase healthy life skills and work well with other treatment forms, such as medication. Behavioral therapies can include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), family therapy, and support groups.


If you or a loved one needs help, please call us at
623-523-4748 and our team at Blueprints For Recovery in Arizona will help.

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