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Are Opioids Narcotics? What’s the Difference?

Opioids are drugs that were initially derived from the opium poppy plant but have since become more commonly chemically manufactured in labs. They are very potent pain relievers that are only meant to be obtained through a doctor’s prescription. The effectiveness and addictive nature of opioids, however, has led to widespread misuse of prescription and illicit opioids.

Medically, opioids are most commonly prescribed for the management of acute severe pain. They are often given to people who are recovering from surgery or a major injury. They can also help manage pain for people undergoing cancer treatment.

Their use is meant to be very short-term, as opioids are extremely addictive. People who use opioids for long-term management of chronic pain often experience negative outcomes, such as dependence and addiction.

Opioids that are commonly used both legally and illicitly include:

Commonly Used Opioids

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Heroin

In addition to FDA-approved prescription opioids, there is a large market for illicit opioids. Illicit opioids are particularly dangerous because their ingredients and quality cannot be guaranteed. Furthermore, people who buy illicit opioids are likely misusing them by taking more than the recommended doses and mixing them with other substances. Concurrent illegal drug use presents a great risk for addiction and overdose.

What Are Narcotics?

Narcotics are another name for opioid pain relievers. They are only meant to be used when other safer forms of painkillers are not providing effective relief. Narcotics can be highly effective at relieving pain, but they must only be used cautiously under a doctor’s supervision. The risk of narcotic abuse is high, so the use of these drugs is recommended only when absolutely necessary.

Medical experts recommend that you do not use narcotic drugs for more than three to four months. They have a high rate of abuse and are habit-forming.
Using narcotics for more than three days is likely to cause tolerance to build in most people. Tolerance does not indicate abuse, but it does let you know that your body is adapting to having the drug in your system.

Common Side Effects

Since opioids and narcotics are the same thing, they share common side effects. Not everyone will experience all the side effects listed below, but they are observed in many people who use this class of painkiller. These side effects include:

Common Opioid Side Effects

  • Drowsiness
  • Impaired cognition and judgment
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Itching
  • Constipation

An additional common side effect of narcotic and opioid use is the experience of withdrawal symptoms when you stop using them. If your use is limited to just a few days to manage severe pain after surgery, for example, you are not likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. If you have been using opioids for a few weeks or months, however, you may have developed a physical dependence that will lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Certain withdrawal symptoms are often experienced when you stop taking narcotic or opioid pain relievers. They include:

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Opioid drug cravings
  • Drowsiness
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Withdrawal symptoms can be very emotionally and physically challenging to endure, but they are an important part of the detox process. Treatment options are available to alleviate uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that prevent some people from getting sober.

Medications, such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of opioid use disorders. They can be taken in place of the opioid that someone has become addicted to. They provide the same physiological effects on the body, so withdrawal symptoms are not severe, without producing the same high that leads to cravings. Medical interventions must be followed with behavioral therapies to ensure long-term abstinence from drug use.

Warnings About Opioid and Narcotic Use

There are many risks associated with opioid or narcotic use. The majority of the risks are associated with long-term use, though short-term use can also cause adverse side effects. The longer you use opioids, the more likely you are to develop a pattern of misuse.

The timeline of tolerance, dependence, and addiction varies from person to person based on many factors. When regularly consuming opioids, however, you will most likely develop a dependence on the drugs eventually. Even when used for a short time exactly as instructed by your doctor, prescription opioids can lead to problems with addiction and overdose.

Most people develop a tolerance to drugs and prescription medications when the substances are taken on a daily basis. Tolerance refers to your body’s response to the drug regularly being in your system. With time, which can be as short as just a few days, your body adjusts to the drug, learns to metabolize it more efficiently, and becomes less sensitive to it. Your options for addressing tolerance are to switch to a different drug that produces similar effects or increase your dosage of the current drug.

Increasing your dosage is an effective way to experience desired side effects once again, though it is only a short-term solution.

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With more time, your body will adapt to the new level of medication in your system, and you will no longer experience the desired effects. This pattern of developing tolerance and responding by increasing your dosage is likely to lead to dependence, which puts you at risk for addiction.

Additional risk factors that have been identified for opioid misuse and addiction include:

Risk Factors for Opioid Misuse

  • Personal history of substance misuse
  • Genetics
  • Personal temperament
  • Exposure to high-risk environments for drug use
  • History of mental health issues
  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • Stressful life circumstances

Avoiding misuse of prescription, as well as illegal, opioids is your best bet for reducing your chances of developing an opioid use disorder. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that there are many ways people abuse opioid and narcotic medications. People misuse these drugs when they take them in ways other than how their doctor prescribed them; take someone else’s medication, such as a friend or family member who was prescribed it; or take the medications to get high.

Opioid vs. Narcotic Term Use

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) explains that the term “narcotic” refers to opium, opium derivatives, and synthetic versions of these drugs. Some people, however, refer to all drugs as narcotics, which is where some of the confusion about the difference between narcotics and opioids comes from. To reduce confusion, using the term “opioids” has grown in recent years to refer to all types of opioid drugs. Nonetheless, when used correctly, opioids and narcotics refer to the same thing.

Whether you refer to your medications as opioids or narcotics, the guidelines for safe use and the risks of abuse are the same. They are powerful pain relievers that must be taken very cautiously and under close supervision of a trained medical professional. Misuse of these drugs is all too common and can happen to anyone who is not extremely careful about how they take them.