“Opiate” and “opioid” are terms that people often use interchangeably, but each has a unique meaning and usage. Originally, “opioid” was the name of the synthetically created substance designed to imitate opium. Today, the word describes an entire subclass of drugs that are related to opium, whether they have derived from the drug or are meant to simulate its effects. “Opiate” is a reference to a natural drug, not a synthetic one, that is harvested from an opium poppy.
Regardless of whether these kinds of drugs are administered in synthetic or natural form, the side effects can be serious. There’s also a high rate of addiction.
Most commonly, opiate drugs are prescribed as a heavy duty painkiller. But prolonged use leads to opiate addiction. The opiate epidemic in the United States has been making headlines for several years now. Multiple communities have been ravaged by and torn apart by these drugs. Addiction to opiates is the main cause of drug overdoses in the United States. In 2015, more than twenty thousand people died from prescription painkiller overdoses, while almost thirteen thousand died from heroin overdoses. But what makes opiates so addictive?
How Opiates Are Made
Opiates are painkillers. In the United States, most opiates are controlled substances that can be obtained through a prescription. The one exception is heroin, which is illegal in all states. All opiates have a high risk of addiction if they are taken for long periods of time. For this reason, most doctors will only prescribe opiates for short-term use.
The use of medicinal substances derived from opium has been part of medical practice for a long time. The painkilling ingredients found in many medications are naturally found in the opium poppy’s sap. These natural ingredients are opiates. When opiates are manipulated through synthetic means, they become opioids. Common opiates and opioids are heroin, codeine, morphine, and oxycodone.
There is no major difference regarding how effective opiates and opioids are. Opioids have active ingredients that have been synthesized through a chemical process. Though this is the technical difference, the two types of drugs function similarly enough that the names are used interchangeably in many circles.
The Intended Use of Opiates
As previously mentioned, opiates are powerful painkillers. They are prescribed on a temporary basis to treat pain ranging from moderate to severe levels. An opiate prescription is most commonly written after a person undergoes an operation or any other medical procedure that causes significant pain.
When taken as prescribed, the risk of addiction is lower. Addiction risk is higher in people who need to take opiates for longer periods of time. In some cases, a doctor will use their discretion to prescribe the painkillers on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. This generally happens when a patient has severe chronic pain that the doctor cannot relieve using less powerful medications.
Even when patients are prescribed medications over a longer period of time, all opiates are heavily controlled. Many states place restrictions on the number of days a person must wait before filling a new opiate prescription.
How Opiate Addiction Works
To understand the risks inherent in opiates, it’s helpful first to understand how opiates affect the body. When an opiate is taken through the bloodstream, the drug is transported to the brain. This causes artificial endorphins and a surge of dopamine to flood through the brain. Your dopamine levels regulate feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, and rewards. The endorphin and dopamine rush causes a powerful euphoria and surge of happiness. The “high” from the opiate cannot be replicated by any natural bodily processes. For a user to experience the feeling again, they’ll need to continue using the drug.
The problem is the dangerous way the brain can react to repeated overuse, though. When the brain becomes used to these endorphin rushes, it will stop creating endorphins and dopamine entirely. Low levels of dopamine and endorphins can cause severe depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidality. People will lack the ability to feel happy or “normal” unless they take the drug. If they want to achieve the same “high” that they did the first time, they will need to take larger and larger doses of the drug to make up for their brain’s chemical deficiency.
Many opiate addicts became addicted to drugs unintentionally. Usually, the drug use began through a legitimate prescription that had been issued after a surgery or a bad accident.
The Progression of Opiate Addiction
Full-blown opiate addiction doesn’t happen all at once. There are warning signs beforehand. The first sign is an increased tolerance to the drug. This occurs when you need to use a larger and larger opiate dose to achieve the same effects; this symptom is a sign that the brain has stopped maintaining its dopamine levels.
The second warning sign is physical dependence on the drug. A person has developed a physical dependence when they experience withdrawal symptoms upon stopping the drug. At this point, many people find it difficult to stop use because of the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms. But continued use will lead to the final stage of addiction: mental cravings. Once psychological dependence sets in, the addiction has reached its peak.
Many people who became addicted to opiates while recovering from surgery will turn to heroin after they no longer have a prescription. Heroin is easier to obtain and cheaper to buy than illegal prescriptions. However, heroin comes with enough risks and side effects that the drug is illegal in all areas of the United States. If you abuse heroin, your risk of overdose and death becomes even higher.
If an opioid is used for a long time, the function of the brain’s nerve cells will change. The brain becomes accustomed to the opioids and reacts violently when they are taken away.