According to John Hopkins Medicine, an opioid is a classification of a type of drug that is derived from the opium poppy plant. This class of drug includes the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine.
Opioids used as prescription drugs are often referred to as pain killers. Additionally, they are known as street drugs, such as heroin. When used as a prescription medication, their mechanism of action lies within blocking pain signals from the brain and body, typically for moderate to severe pain. In addition to being able to manage pain, they tend to make people feel relaxed, happy, or “high” and can be addictive.
Regular use of prescribed medications can increase tolerance and dependence (read more on the difference between those two here). Some people may become addicted to opioids. Slowed breathing, a long-term effect, can restrict your ability to breathe (respiratory depression). Taking opioids at larger doses and misusing them can lead to a fatal overdose due to respiratory depression.
What is the difference between opioids and opiates?
An article from VeryWellMind explains that the difference between opioids and opiates comes from the understanding of what opium is. Opium refers to the latex from the poppy pod, which contains many alkaloids. The primary alkaloid found in opium is morphine, which relieves extreme pain. An alkaloid is another word to describe a naturally occurring compound that contains a nitrogen molecule that makes it pharmacologically active.
Naturally Derived: Opiates
Opiates are substances naturally occurring within the poppy pod. Some opiates found in the poppy plant are opium, morphine, and codeine. It’s important to note that regardless of their natural occurrence they are just as addictive as other substances that are synthetic, such as opioids.
An opioid refers to any drug synthesized from an opiate that produces similar effects. Examples of drugs synthesized from opiates include heroin, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and methadone. While all opiates can be opioids, not all opioids are opiates due to their synthetic nature.
Even so, the two terms are used interchangeably because they both bind to the opioid receptors in the brain and body. The difference lies in their synthesis.
What are the side effects?
Depending on the person’s biochemical individuality and quantity of use, the side effects will differ. However, there are common resulting physiological changes.
Short-Term Side Effects
According to Ashley Mcgree, RN, a provider of drug addiction treatment, the short-term side effects can include:
- decreased respiratory rate,
- increased drowsiness
- pinpoint pupils
- constipation and nausea are the most common.
Usually, doctors who provide opioids to patients for pain management will recommend laxatives at the start of the prescription.
Long-Term Side Effects
Similar to the short-term side effects, long-term effects vary depending on the type of opioid, quantity, and duration of use.
Health Canada states that the long-term side effects may include:
- increased tolerance
- substance use disorder or dependence
- liver damage
- infertility in women
- worsening pain and life-threatening withdrawal symptoms in babies born to mothers taking opioids.
Even when using opioids for therapeutic reasons, research shows the consequences of opioid therapy can outweigh the benefits. For example, in a review, Baldini et al. discussed that long-term opioid use can negatively affect several organ systems. Markedly, results showed that long-term opioid therapy is associated with potential adverse effects such as:
- sleep disorder breathing
- hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal dysregulation
Despite the increasing challenges that Canada is facing with this opioid epidemic, here at Simcoe we strongly believe that positive changes are coming. Therefore, we continue to raise awareness about the issues with opiates and opioids while providing solutions that can be life-altering.
If you or any of your loved ones want more information about treatments for opioid and/or opiate use, we encourage you to ask us your questions.