Updated on November 28, 2023
8 min read

Types of Opiates, Risks of Use & Addiction

Prescription opioids are powerful pain relief medications derived from opium poppies. However, the potential for misuse and addiction has made them a topic of heated debate. 

Understanding the differences between opiates and their risks and effects is critical to making an informed decision. 

This blog post discusses various opiate types, the potential dangers of using these substances, and information on addiction and treatment options.

What Is an Opiate?

Opiates are severe and acute pain relief medications. They can also help manage chronic pain. However, they’re the last line of treatment for it and are usually only prescribed after other less potent medications have failed.

Some of the most popular opiates include:

What Are the Types of Opiates?

There are a variety of opioid drugs available on the market today. The three classifications of opiates are natural, synthetic, and semi-synthetic.

Natural Opiates

Natural opiates come from poppies and are the least harmful type of opiate. However, they still have a high risk of abuse and addiction. They can trigger respiratory depression in high doses.

Examples of natural opiates include:

Synthetic Opiates

Synthetic opiates, created in laboratories, mimic the chemical structure and effects of natural opiates. Examples of synthetic opiates include:

Semi-Synthetic Opiates

Semi-synthetic opiates, which are prescription narcotics, are developed from natural opiates. This group encompasses the illegal drug heroin, which is derived from morphine.

Other examples of semi-synthetic opiates include:

Potency and Combination of Opiates

Combining opiates with other medications is often necessary for effective pain management due to their varying potencies. Precise dosing and vigilant monitoring are essential to minimize the risks of overdose and respiratory depression associated with these potent opiates.

Codeine, the mildest opiate, is typically paired with non-opioid medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to optimize pain relief.

Oxycodone, hydrocodone, and OxyContin are semi-synthetic opiates, providing a middle ground between pain control and opiate exposure. 

Conversely, potent opiates, like methadone, fentanyl, and morphine, are reserved for severe pain cases due to their heightened efficacy.


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Opioids Vs. Opiates

The distinction between opiates and opioids primarily relies on their sources. Opiates are composed of natural substances. Opioids include both natural and synthetic forms. 

Poppies naturally produce opiates, while manufacturers derive opiates’ active chemicals to create opioids.

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What Are the Uses and Risks of Opiates?

Opiates have been a valuable tool for pain management for decades. When a healthcare professional administers and closely monitors its use, opiates can provide safe and effective relief. 

However, statistics reveal that opiates are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs.

How Do Opiates Work, and Why Are They Addictive?

Opiates are highly addictive. They work by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, spinal cord, and other body parts. This causes a reduction in the perception of pain and a euphoric feeling of well-being.

Ongoing use of opiates eventually inhibits “feel good” chemicals—the product of the body’s endorphins. 

As tolerance develops, the body needs higher drug doses to achieve the same response. This leads to addiction because tolerance also increases the risk of overdose.

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What Are the Side Effects of Opiates?

Whether you're taking opiates as prescribed or misusing them, side effects can occur. Among the most common is constipation.

Opiates disrupt bowel movements by inhibiting contractions. These lead to difficulty passing stools, resulting in hardened ones that block the bowels. Blockage can potentially cause bowel rupture, sepsis, and even death.

To combat these effects, opiate users should consider the following.

  • Increasing their fiber intake
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Staying hydrated with ample water consumption

General and Severe Opiate Side Effects

Side effects vary based on dosage amount, method of how the drug is used, and previous opiate exposure.

The other side effects of opiates include:

  • Itching
  • Sedation
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Tremors
  • Anxiousness
  • Insomnia
  • Upset stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • Pupil contraction
  • Hallucination
  • Sweating
  • Delirium
  • Confusion
  • Extreme irritability
  • Muscle pain and spasms

Severe side effects include:

  • Coma
  • Circulatory collapse
  • Severe respiratory depression
  • Cardiac arrest

What Are the Symptoms of Opiate Addiction?

Symptoms can vary from one person to another.

Common opiate addiction symptoms include:

  • Using large amounts of a drug or for longer periods than intended or prescribed
  • Unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control the use of the drug
  • Excessive time and effort invested in getting, using, and recovering from the use of the drug
  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Neglecting obligations 
  • Continued use despite problems caused by the usage, the risk of harm (including overdose), and awareness of the problem

Opioid Addiction and Heroin Usage

Prescription opiate use is also linked to heroin use. A person addicted to prescription opiates who can no longer get their drug of choice by prescription may turn to heroin to satisfy the addiction. This phenomenon led to a rise in heroin addiction.

Statistics on Opiate Abuse

Opiate abuse is rising and is now considered one of the United States’ most significant health problems. According to the U.S. National Library of Health:

  • Over 16 million people worldwide, including 3 million U.S. citizens, have been affected by opioid use disorder (OUD).
  • In the U.S. alone, over 500,000 people are dependent on heroin.
  • The U.S. declared the opioid overdose crisis a national emergency in 2017.

What Are Opiate Overdose Symptoms?

Opiate overdose is a medical emergency. When you take more than the recommended amount of opiates, it can lead to respiratory depression and other life-threatening symptoms.

Recognizing the signs is essential if you suspect someone has overdosed on opiates.

  • Shallow breathing
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Convulsions
  • Coma
  • Nervous system changes
  • Irregular or abnormal vital signs
  • Cold or clammy skin or bluish lips

What Are the Signs of Opiate Withdrawal?

Someone addicted to or dependent on opiates will experience withdrawal if they stop using the drug. Opiate withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant and possibly dangerous.

The discomfort associated with withdrawal can increase the risk of relapse, as users may seek to alleviate these symptoms by using opiates again. This cycle of withdrawal, relapse, and continued drug use is a characteristic feature of opioid addiction.

Anyone addicted or dependent on opiates should consider medically supervised detoxification.

Symptoms of opiate withdrawal are similar to extreme flu symptoms, including:

  • Intense cravings
  • Aches
  • Involuntary muscle movements
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chills
  • Dilated pupils
  • High blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Yawning

Severe symptoms tend to alleviate within a few days, but full opiate withdrawal can last several weeks. Cravings and milder symptoms can last for months.

Intensity and Secondary Complications

Nausea and vomiting are two of the most intense symptoms associated with withdrawal. Vomiting can lead to secondary complications, including aspiration pneumonia (when you accidentally breathe vomited material into the lungs).

Diarrhea is another potentially dangerous symptom that can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, which can cause heart and circulatory issues.

Treatment and Medication for Opiate Withdrawal

Over-the-counter medications, rest, and plenty of fluids can ease mild withdrawal symptoms. 

Intense withdrawal symptoms might require hospitalization and prescription medications. 

Certain medications, such as clonidine, are only available in an inpatient setting. Clonidine reduces withdrawal symptoms by as much as 75% and eases:

  • Anxiety
  • Cramping
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle aches
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Tears

What Are the Treatment Options for Opiate Addiction?

Opiate addiction is a medical disorder and requires professional treatment. Recovery can come with challenges, including exposure to relapse triggers and temptations. 

Developing relapse prevention strategies, such as identifying triggers, building coping skills, and having a support network, is crucial to maintaining sobriety.

The most successful treatment plans involve a holistic approach, combining medications, therapy, support groups, or 12-step programs.


The medications that healthcare providers administer in opiate addiction treatment include:

  • Methadone: a full opioid agonist that helps reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings for opioids
  • Buprenorphine: a partial opioid agonist that has similar effects to methadone but is less addictive
  • Naltrexone: an opioid antagonist that blocks the euphoric effects of opioids
  • Suboxone: a combination of buprenorphine and naltrexone

Ideally, medications should be used in conjunction with counseling and support groups. 


Individual or group therapy helps people identify the underlying cause of their addiction and develop healthy coping mechanisms to prevent relapse. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common therapy for opiate addiction.

12-Step Programs

12-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), provide social support and a network of people who understand what it’s like to struggle with opiate addiction. They also offer step-by-step guidance on how to stay clean and sober.

Treatment Settings

Treatment for opiate addiction is available in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Inpatient treatment offers 24-hour access to medical professionals and an intensive program tailored to the needs of each person.

Outpatient programs offer more freedom. However, the lack of structure and support might be less effective for severe addictions.


Opiate addiction is a serious health issue. It can cause numerous physical and mental health problems, including overdose, withdrawal symptoms, and secondary complications.

There are several types of treatment for opiate addiction. These include medications such as methadone or buprenorphine, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

Recovering from opiate addiction is possible with professional help and support. Seeking treatment as soon as possible is the best way to achieve long-term recovery.

If you or someone you know suffers from opiate addiction, seek help immediately. Treatment is available in inpatient and outpatient settings, and professional help can make all the difference in recovery.

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Updated on November 28, 2023

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