Opioid drugs have a long history in the United States and abroad. They’ve been used to successfully treat pain for centuries, but it wasn’t until the past three decades in the United States that the use of the drugs turned sinister. Opioid addiction has long plagued the world, but never at the levels we see today.
It’s become challenging to determine if someone needs opioids for pain or because they’re addicted, leading to significant issues for the chronic pain community. Two such drugs, heroin and morphine, are highly addictive. However, while one is prescribed to manage pain, the other is illicit and has no medical benefit.
Morphine was the first opioid used for medical purposes in the United States. It was used to treat pain and on the battlefields throughout the 20th century. While it’s still used today, it can also be used recreationally as addicts do with heroin. Heroin vs. morphine – how are they similar? What are the differences? Are they as potent as one another? We’ll answer those questions and more below.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is a derivative of morphine. It typically comes as a brown or white powder or a black sticky goo. While morphine comes in tablets and a solution, heroin is mixed with water and injected with a needle. In some cases, users might opt to smoke or snort the drug. No matter which way it’s ingested, these are rapid means of delivering it to the brain, making it extremely addictive.
Heroin use can lead to severe health complications. Since it’s associated with needle sharing, the risk of getting an infectious disease is possible. Regular heroin use can lead to tolerance, which is true of any opioid. This means the user will need more and more of the drug over time to experience an effect. When the body becomes dependent on heroin, it will experience withdrawal symptoms when users run out of the drug or use less of it. These symptoms include muscle and bone pain, restlessness, diarrhea, vomiting, and cold flashes with goosebumps.
Other health complications as a result of heroin use include the following:
- Heart infections
- Death caused by an overdose
What Is Morphine?
Morphine is a potent opioid that treats acute or chronic moderate-to-severe pain. The drug can be taken orally as a pill or injected intravenously, which is what first responders typically administer to patients in distress after an accident. Morphine belongs to a class of medications known as narcotic analgesics that act on the central nervous system (CNS) to relieve pain.
Opioids are found naturally in the opium poppy plant. Chemically, morphine is similar to naturally occurring endorphins produced by the body. These bind to opioid receptors and manage pain naturally. When morphine is ingested, it imitates these endorphins produced by the brain and binds to opioid receipts, which activate them.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies morphine as a Schedule II drug. This means that while it’s used in professional medical settings, it can also be abused. Prolonged use of the medication can lead to dependence and addiction.
Heroin vs. Morphine: Similarities and Differences
Heroin and morphine share many similarities, but both are different as well. Heroin comes from morphine and converts back to morphine once it reaches one’s system, meaning the two work similarly. Heroin is made by altering morphine in a lab, and when it’s consumed, morphine is an active metabolite. In essence, you’ll experience the effects of morphine when using morphine or heroin.
Both morphine and heroin are federally controlled substances, but heroin is more strictly regulated than morphine. Heroin is a Schedule I drug in the United States, which means there is a high abuse potential and no accepted medical use. Morphine is a Schedule II substance, meaning there is an abuse potential, but it is accepted for medical use.
When it comes to heroin in the United States, it’s illegal to buy, sell or possess the drug. For morphine, you can legally possess the medication if you have a prescription. In other places like the United Kingdom, heroin and morphine are prescribed drugs. Using either of these drugs for prolonged periods will eventually lead to addiction, especially when misused. Both drugs can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms if you stop using them after becoming dependent.
Despite their similarities, there are many differences. Heroin is far more potent than morphine and is considered more toxic in higher doses. Morphine is regarded as an opiate because it’s found in nature, whereas heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid since it’s made from the use of an opiate.
Heroin vs. Morphine: How They Affect the Brain
Addicts seek out opioids because of how they activate opioid receptors in the brain, which lead to pain relief and sedation. Many users report becoming addicted after the first time they tried the drug because the sensation was comparable to that of a warm blanket on a cold day. All of their problems melted away after one dose and changed their lives forever.
Opioid use can even reduce the risk of developing post-traumatic stress. Unfortunately, though, in higher doses, they produce intoxication and euphoria, two feelings that are highly sought out. Prolonged use causes the brain to adapt to its presence in the body, altering natural brain chemistry.
When opioid use stops, the brain becomes chemically imbalanced, which is why users develop withdrawal symptoms. Since opioid receptors are located all over the body, that’s why they feel withdrawal symptoms throughout their bodies.
Heroin and morphine significantly influence the brain’s reward center. While serotonin and dopamine are released through exercise, eating sugar, and other activities, opioids have a similar effect. They imitate the endorphins the body naturally produces and release more, making the brain seek out these drugs for that boost to feel good. It changes how the brain works and slowly evolves into addiction, which is a compulsive desire to take these drugs, no matter the consequences.
Heroin vs. Morphine Potency
Despite their similarities, heroin and morphine differ based on their potency. The potency of drugs is measured in many ways, and it’s essential to mention that a stronger medication may not be stronger in every way. What we mean by that is a drug’s potency to relieve pain might be stronger, but it doesn’t produce strong sedative effects. Most drugs have different strengths and weaknesses.
The way you determine a drug’s potency is through its effectiveness at different doses. For example, a morphine injection is first administered at a dose of 0.1 mg to 0.2 mg and given every four hours. Standard doses are around 2 mg/mL to 4 mg/mL, with doses as high as 15 mg/mL. A proper dose is determined by pain severity, age, weight, and sex.
It’s more challenging to provide a standard dose of heroin as it’s no longer used as a prescription drug in the U.S. Illicit heroin users typically start with doses around 5 mg and increase their dosage as they become more tolerant of the drug. A 30 mg dose is dangerous to the average person, but a heroin-tolerant individual can ingest a dose of that size with few side effects.
Both drugs are dangerous. While opioids are tolerated in low doses and used as prescribed, they can potentially be fatal. Of the two, heroin is more dangerous and considered 10 times more powerful than morphine regarding dangerous side effects.
When used in extreme doses, heroin and morphine can produce fatal overdoses. While they can be life-threatening when taken alone, the odds of a life-threatening overdose increase when they’re taken along with other substances, especially depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines. Heroin is more often used recreationally, and since it’s 10 times more potent than morphine, it comes with a greater overdose risk.
Morphine shouldn’t be discounted because it’s not as potent as heroin. Many people die from morphine overdoses as well. Both drugs can produce respiratory depression, which is when one’s breathing slows down or stops altogether. Even slowed breathing can cause someone to pass out or fall into a coma. It’s the most common cause of death in opioid overdoses.
If you’re prescribed morphine for pain, continue following the instructions your doctor gave you. If you’re abusing heroin, it’s time to seek help.