Is Heroin an Opiate?

Is Heroin an Opiate?

There are a lot of questions surrounding heroin as a drug, specifically it’s classification. Due to the destructive nature of the drug, many people frequently ask, “Is heroin an opiate?” The short answer is: “Yes, heroin is an opiate.” However, in order to fully understand this drug and its dangerous effects, we must understand what opiates are and how they work.

What’s the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids?

To understand the classification of heroin as a drug, we must first understand its origin. According to National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin is “an opioid drug that is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant.” Milky, sap-like opium is first removed from the pod of the poppy flower. This opium is refined to make morphine, then further refined into different forms of heroin (

There is a lot of back-and-forth discussion on the difference between opiates and opioids, but the general consensus is that opiates or opiate drugs “originate from naturally-occurring alkaloids found in the opium poppy plant” ( Opiate drugs are best-known for their pain-relieving properties.

opioids vs opiates

Opioids, on the other hand, while similar to opiates in that they are also partly derived from opium, are primarily different because their makeup is manufactured. Opioids are actually synthetic drugs that produce opiate-like effects.

Other definitions choose to lump opiates and opioids together under the broader category of “opioids.” This is the proper medical terminology. According to, an opioid is “any agent that binds to opioid receptors (protein molecules located on the membranes of some nerve cells) found principally in the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract, and elicits a response.”

Heroin is classified as a semi-synthetic opioid, as is oxycodone. In addition to “semi-synthetic,” there are three other types of opioids: endogenous opioids such as endorphins, which are produced naturally in the body; opium alkaloids, such as morphine; and fully synthetic opioids, such as methadone.

Most opioids are actually legal, and are found in the form of prescription drugs. Some of the most common ones are painkillers such as morphine, methadone, Buprenorphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. Some of the brand names these drugs are sold under are OxyContin®, Percocet®, Vicodin®, Percodan®, Tylox® and Demerol® among others (

How Do Opioids Work?

Opioids take effect by attaching to receptors in the brain, which happens naturally in the body with endorphins. Once attached, they send  “opioid effect” signals to the brain, which block pain, slow breathing, and create a general calming and anti-depressing effect.

The difference between naturally occurring opioids and synthetic or alkaloid opioids is that the body cannot naturally produce enough organic opioids to stop severe pain, nor would it ever produce enough to cause an overdose. In general, opioids work to depress or slow central nervous system functions, which accounts for their analgesic effects (

Heroin’s Effect on the Body

With higher doses of opioids, especially with synthetic varieties such as oxycodone or heroin, the effect essentially amplifies the body’s natural response: producing intense feelings of joy and comfort. A person who takes opioids when they’re not in pain will typically experience a feeling of elation (a “rush), followed by deep relaxation, where they may drift in and out of wakefulness.




This is also what makes heroin specifically so dangerous. The effects of a heroin high can prove fatal. In most cases, death from heroin overdose is caused because breathing slows down severely. A heroin overdose can also cause your blood pressure to dip significantly and cause your heart to fail (

The body’s reaction to opiates vary from drug to drug, specifically with regards to cell receptor sites. Natural opiates, such as heroin and opium, activate opioid receptor sites and stimulate endorphin secretions. For this reason, these drugs often have the highest addiction potential.

Oxycodone and hydrocodone work similarly, by activating cell receptors. Still others (like naloxone and naltrexone) block cell receptor sites, which keeps other opiate materials from accessing and activating receptor sites.

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