Opioids and Opiates

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 53 million people use opioids. That number is expected to grow with each passing year. Opioids are prescription painkillers, and rising use rates show how addictive they are. When something hurts, we expect relief. Patients demand help, and doctors must give it to them.

But rising use rates also reflect how much we want to avoid pain. These drugs are designed to flood our brains with pleasure, and when that happens, we feel physically incapable of quitting.

The opioid crisis in the country is real, and every day, people lose their lives to opioid overdose. Legislators and regulators hope to change that through tightening prescription rules and increasing penalties for illicit access. But every person who chooses to get sober also plays a role in helping a community to heal.

Opioid withdrawal is the first step toward healing, but it can be intensely uncomfortable. Detox programs may help, as they can ease discomfort so you can remain focused on getting better. Treatment programs may help you preserve the sobriety you gain in detox.

What Is an Opioid?

Opioids are prescription medications used to ease pain. The opioids we often talk about (such as Vicodin and OxyContin) are relatively new, but they stem from very old sources. Prescription painkillers are made in laboratories, but they are structurally similar to natural painkillers. Specifically, opioids are made from opium, which comes from the sap of poppy plants.

Frontline reports the line of poppies that makes the right sap was cultivated in Mesopotamia in 3400 BC. It wasn’t until 1895 that people began using poppy sap products for pain. Previously, the drug was used for recreational purposes.

Opioids work by:

  • Entering the bloodstream. Drugs can be swallowed, smoked, injected, or sniffed. They quickly attach to blood cells, so they can move throughout the body.
  • Attaching to receptors. Opioid receptors are in the brain, the spinal cord, and the intestines. They look a bit like an electrical plug. They’re just waiting for opioids to connect to them.
  • Triggering reactions. Every opioid works a little differently, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But all of them cause the release of dopamine. Users feel euphoric and relaxed.
  • Causing tolerance. With repeated use, people will need bigger doses to feel sensations once triggered by smaller amounts.
  • Sparking dependence. In time, people aren’t able to release dopamine without opioids. And they feel sick without the drugs.

Understand the Terminology

opiates vs opioids

If you hope to avoid the power of these drugs, you could ensure that you don’t take anything called an opioid. Unfortunately, the language we use to describe drugs has blurred over time, and that could mean you’re in danger without knowing it.

People can call Vicodin pills opioids, opiates, and narcotics. Technically, each term means something different.

Experts define them this way:

  • Opioids: These are substances created in labs that are made from opiates. They can be divided into two types: synthetic and semi-synthetic. Synthetic opioids include methadone and fentanyl, and semi-synthetic include hydrocodone, oxycodone and heroin.
  • Opiates: Opiates are natural chemicals found in the opium plant. These include morphine, codeine, papaverine and thebaine.
  • Narcotics: These substances are designed to kill pain. Both opiates and opioids could be considered narcotics.

Keeping track of the shifting terminology isn’t easy. For example, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration says painkillers made in laboratories, including morphine, could be considered a semisynthetic opioid. Some of the ingredients are natural.

While many organizations now simply call all these variations opioids, some still differentiate between the categories.

Common Opioid Drugs


This painkiller is designed for people dealing with mild to moderate pain, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Pure codeine pills are available, but the drug is also combined with other ingredients to help people overcome pain combined with coughing.

Codeine blocks the sensation of pain, but it doesn’t address swelling or underlying disease. It is sometimes combined with aspirin or acetaminophen to deliver well-rounded relief.


This opioid is designed for moderate pain relief, and the most popular version of the drug is sold as Vicodin. Each Vicodin tablet contains both the opioid and acetaminophen to deal with the pain’s cause.
People who take too much Vicodin can develop life-threatening organ failure due to the high doses of acetaminophen they ingest every day.

Morphine Sulfate

This form of opioid is made for people in severe pain. They need medications that can control discomfort around the clock, and MS Contin does just that.

This medication releases its power over time, so one pill should bring all-day relief. But people who abuse it can crush and snort the pills to override the time release. That gives them all the power of the pill at once.


This medication is made for severe pain, and it also comes with a time-release function. Again, people with addictions can crush and snort the pills to get all the power in one dose. The most infamous form of oxycodone on the market is OxyContin.


This is a very strong opioid medication, and it’s made for people with a tolerance to other opioids. If you’ve been taking OxyContin for months due to cancer pain and the pills no longer help you, this would be another option your doctor could try.
Dilaudid is deadly for people who have no opioid tolerance. They can overdose on the first hit.


Heroin is a highly addictive recreational opioid made from morphine. It can be a brown or white powder and it’s usually injected. However, it can also be smoked, sniffed or snorted. Heroin can also be laced with powdered milk, sugar or starch, which can inflict permanent damage on your body. Heroin overdoses have increased in recent years, but overdoses can usually be prevented with the use of naloxone if used quickly.


This medication is for persistent, moderate pain. The most popular form of fentanyl, Duragesic, is sold as a patch. Patients can put the product on their skin and get a low dose all day long. But people with addictions can extract the gel in the patch and ingest it or inject it.

Opioids are popular, in part, because they are so prevalent. There are many different types available, and some people in pain know to ask for the drugs they need by name.

Why Are Opioids So Addictive?

Opioids were made to help people in pain, and their discomfort is real. Enduring a broken bone, a torn ligament, or a lacerated arm without painkillers isn’t just inhumane; it can be life-threatening. But these medications work in such a way that abuse can be likely.

When opioids enter your body and latch on to your brain, large amounts of dopamine begin swirling through your cells. That’s often associated with feelings of relaxation and pleasure.

People explain that they feel like they’re floating and that nothing can harm them. They feel connected to themselves and others in new ways.

Some people who take medications for pain grow attached to euphoria, and they find it’s difficult to stop. Others grab pain pills from friends and family members, and they also find it hard to quit once they have started.

This isn’t a moral failing or lack of character. This is a medical condition caused by the transformation opioids can bring. It’s serious, and once it’s in progress, it’s hard to stop.

The Opioid Crisis Is Real

This isn’t the first time officials have been worried about opioid abuse. As National Public Radio points out, one of the first opioid epidemics took hold in the late 1800s. Doctors said then that we needed to stop abusing the drug or we’ll face mass destruction. We didn’t listen, and we seem to be struggling with the same problems now.

In the late 1990s, experts explain, drug manufacturers developed the first opioids. They were powerful, and the chemists knew that. But the marketing teams explained that the drugs couldn’t spark addiction. Health care providers listened, and suddenly, the drugs were readily available.

Back then, you could get opioids through:

  • Urgent care clinics. See a doctor you’ve never met before, describe your pain, and walk out with a prescription.
  • Primary care doctors. Describe chronic pain, and get a prescription that could last for years.
  • Dentists. Even routine cleanings could qualify you for pain control.
  • Friends and family. Open up a medicine cabinet, and you’re likely to find opioids inside.

It wasn’t until people started dying at record-breaking rates that officials knew something had to change.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 700,000 people died due to opioid overdose between 1999 and 2017. It’s this death rate that makes opioids more dangerous than other drugs. People are using other substances (like meth) at high rates. But opioids take more lives, and therefore, they get more attention.

Officials are hoping to curb the tide by tightening prescription rules. Doctors have to do more to hand out the pills, and patients have to do more to get their orders filled. Penalties for manufacturing drugs are growing more severe too.

What Does Opioid Withdrawal Feel Like?

When you’ve taken opioids regularly, your body grows accustomed to them. In time, you can’t feel normal without them. To get better, you must let your body adjust to sobriety. You’ll do that through withdrawal.

Experts say opioid withdrawal typically lasts about a week, and it’s often described as flu-like. You may feel tired, achy, queasy, and unable to eat. You may also have very serious cravings for opioids that seem hard to ignore.

If you take a stronger drug, you’re likely to have stronger withdrawal symptoms. People who take methadone, for example, have a longer-lasting withdrawal even though it tends to start late, researchers say.

You might also struggle with at-home withdrawal if you have poor physical health. Long-lasting anorexia and diarrhea can leave you feeling weak and too sick to get better.

The following are all examples of symptoms you’ll experience in the first 24 hours of opioid withdrawal:

  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle aches

After a day or two, you’ll start feeling more serious symptoms:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Diarrhea

The key to preventing some of the more serious withdrawal symptoms is getting help early on. If you have enough support from friends and family to realize you have a problem, you’re already on the right track.

How Opioid Detox Helps

There are people addicted to opioids who may want to try detoxing at home. But as we mentioned, some people struggle to get through this process due to their drug-taking habits, their health, or both. Others find that they simply can’t ignore their cravings, and they are at risk of relapse.

Medical detox helps, as doctors can use medications to ease your transition. These substances won’t get you high, but they can trick your body into thinking you’re taking opioids.

A smaller dose every day can give your body a sort of offramp to sobriety. It comes on slowly, but it can be remarkably powerful.

After detox, you can enroll in treatment programs that may help you preserve your newfound sobriety. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to pick up skills to help you fend off the next relapse trigger.

Treatment for Opioid/Opiate Addiction

Once you complete detox, you should enroll in some kind of addiction treatment program. Although detox is a crucial first step in your journey to sobriety, treatment will help change the way you think about opioids and opiates. Since you’ve been using these for so long, your brain has been wired to accept these as part of your daily habits. Your brain also thinks you need these drugs to function.

During treatment, you may come to understand why you started abusing drugs in the first place. This way you can make your life stronger and your relationships tighter. Eventually, you’ll have no room for drugs to enter.

It tends to be a long-lasting process, as you might need to change many things about your life. But you might find that the work is pleasant, especially if you have the sobriety to show for it.

By participating in addiction treatment programs at Footprints, you’ll learn how to respond to emotional and physical triggers that could result in relapse.

Treatment Plans for Opioids Include:

  • Residential Treatment: This form of treatment is the most extensive and in-depth. Patients live on-site and attend different therapies and treatments. The schedule will differ across individuals but it is always very structured and leaves little room for anything else. This type of program is often recommended if an individual has suffered from opioid addiction for a long period of time.
  • Outpatient Treatment: There are several types of outpatient programs, but all of them allow the individual to reside at home during the program. Therapy and treatment are done around an individual’s schedule so they can still attend work and other responsibilities.
  • Addiction therapy: Individual and group therapy offer you chances to tell a mental health counselor what’s on your mind, and it also allows you to share your drug use experiences with others. Everything you say in therapy is confidential.
  • Aftercare clubs: After finishing treatment, it’s also helpful for you to get involved in activities that don’t involve opioid use. Our Footprints locations offer different aftercare clubs like Coffee Talk, which lets you talk with an alumnus of our program over coffee, and Tai Chi & Yoga, which offers ways to practice mindfulness through exercise.

Get Help for Your Opioid/Opiate Addiction at Footprints Today

Don’t wait to seek treatment. Opioid addiction is serious, and if it goes untreated for too long, it could have a dangerous impact on your health. Contact Footprints today to speak to one of our representatives, who can tell you about our different programs and find one that’s right for you.

Trusted & Approved Addiction Treatment Centers

Helo Icon

The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) is a nonprofit professional society designed to offer support to organizations across the continuum of care. Since 1978, it has extended resources, advocacy and thought leadership to its members.

Helo Icon

The Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHCO) evaluates quality of care provided by healthcare organizations. Footprints has the Gold Seal of Approval, which means we possess the highest standard of safety and quality of care.

LegitScript is a third-party certification that confirms that Footprints follows all applicable laws and regulations. It shows that our company has been vetted and that we demonstrate an ongoing commitment to integrity and transparency.