What Are Opiates? What Are Opioids?

The term “opiate” refers to drugs derived from the opium poppy, such as opium, morphine and codeine, as well as to drugs that are derived from the opium poppy and then chemically altered, such as heroin.

Opioids are a family of drugs that have morphine-like effects. The term “opioid” includes opiates as well as other drugs that have morphine-like effects that are not derived from the opium poppy. These drugs are made my chemists in labs, and include methadone, Demerol, Percodan, Dilaudid and others. Opioid drugs are the most effective “analgesics,” or painkillers available.

The primary medical use for prescription opioids is to relieve pain. Other medical uses include control of coughs and diarrhea, and the treatment of addiction to other opioids. Opioids can also produce euphoria, making them prone to abuse.

Federal laws regulate the possession and distribution of all opioids. Use of prescription opioids is legal only when they are prescribed by a licensed medical practitioner, and are used by the person to whom they are prescribed.

Are Opioids Dangerous?

Yes. Opioids can be dangerous if they are used without medical supervision or abused.

* Opioids are depressant drugs, which means that they slow down the part of the brain that controls breathing. All opioid drugs are dangerous when taken in large quantities or when taken with other depressants, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines. Signs of overdose include slow breathing, bluish skin and coma. Death can result, usually because breathing stops. If caught in time, overdose can be treated with drugs such as naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids, including the effect on breathing.

* People who use opioids regularly for their pleasurable effects soon develop tolerance to these effects, which means they need to use more and more of the drug to achieve the desired effect. As the amount taken increases, so does the risk of overdose. If people with tolerance stop taking the drug, they lose their tolerance. If they then resume taking the same amount they took before they stopped, the risk of overdose is extreme.

* Some people inject opioids to increase the intensity of the euphoric effect. Using dirty needles and sharing needles carries a high risk of infection and disease (e.g., HIV, hepatitis). When pharmaceutical tablets or capsules are dissolved for injection, non-drug substances contained in these products can permanently damage veins and organs.

* Regular use of large quantities of opioids during pregnancy can increase the risk of premature delivery and infant withdrawal. Pregnant women who are addicted to opioids are treated with the long-acting opioid methadone to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

Adapted from: CAMH, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health