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Types of Opioids

There are several different types of opioids, with different illicit drugs and medications falling under this category. Understanding the types of opioids will allow you to know what you are dealing with, depending on your use of opioid drugs. Many opioids are used recreationally, medically, or both, and some are actually used to treat opioid addiction.

If you or someone you love struggles with opioid abuse, call 800-466-0354 ( Who Answers?) now to speak with an addiction specialist. 

Natural, Synthetic, or Semi-synthetic?

The three main types of opioids are either natural, synthetic, or semi-synthetic. Because opioid is the blanket term for all medications and drugs associated with opiate-like properties, it can refer to each of these three types.

Types of Opioids

Many opioids are prescription painkillers that have a high abuse potential.


  • Natural opioids (also called opiates) are drugs which come directly from the poppy plant. According to the ISATE, “natural opiates are derived from the dried ‘milk’ of the opium poppy,” also known as Papaver somniferum.
  • Some of the most common natural opiates are morphine, codeine, and opium.


  • Synthetic opioids are purely man-made, “manufactured in chemical laboratories with a similar chemical structure.” While synthetic opioids do not occur in nature, they have essentially the same properties as natural opiates.
  • Some common synthetic opioids are fentanyl, methadone, and dextropropoxyphene.


  • Semi-synthetic opioids are built on natural opiates but are in some part man-made. They also have the same basic properties that all opioids have.
  • Some common synthetic opioids are heroin, hydrocodone, and oxycodone.

Illicit Opioids

There are opioids which are considered to be illicit substances, meaning that they do not have a medicinal use (or not many uses of that type) and that they are extremely susceptible to abuse. These opioids are usually fast-acting and cause addiction very quickly. It is also very dangerous to use them as someone could potentially overdose on the first usage of the drug.

Illicit opioids include heroin and opium. Here are some facts about illicit opioids:

  • The DOJ states that “schedule I narcotics, like heroin, have no medical use in the U.S. and are illegal to distribute, purchase, or use outside of medical research.” These are the types of illicit opioids, some of which may be schedule II.
  • The NIDA states that “in 2011, 4.2 million Americans aged 12 or older (or 1.6 percent) had used heroin at least once in their lives.” It can also be estimated that about “23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent on it.”
  • According to the DOI, “the combination of tolerance and dependency creates an increasing financial burden” for the person who uses illicit opioids. The cost of a heroin habit “can reach hundreds of dollars a day.”
  • Heroin, a highly addictive and incredibly fast-acting illicit opioid, is “the most commonly used opioid” drug as well as the most commonly abused (ISATE).

Prescription Opioids

Prescription opioids are usually given to patients who are dealing with either acute or chronic pain. The specific medication is decided upon by a doctor who considers the needs of the individual. These medications are highly prescribed because of their ability to fight pain and help users through their physical issues.

While prescription opioids are meant to be given only by doctors, they are often bought and sold illegally and used recreationally for the euphoric high they can cause if taken in large amounts.

Prescription opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, meperidine, fentanyl, tramadol, and codeine. Here are some facts about prescription opioids:

  • Prescription opioids are not always exclusively used to treat pain. Codeine can be used to treat severe cough, as can hydrocodone.
  • Many people feel that prescription opioids are completely safe to use because they are prescribed by doctors. However, there are many side effects associated with these drugs and a possibility for abuse and addiction if the user is not careful to stay consistent with his or her doctor’s recommended dosage.
  • As stated by the NIDA, “physical dependence occurs because of normal adaptations to chronic exposure to a drug and is not the same as addiction.” This is why people who follow their doctors’ dosage amounts still experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking opioids. It does not mean that they are addicted to the drugs, just that they have become dependent on them which is common.
  • Pain relievers (or prescription opioids) are the most commonly abused psychotherapeutic drugs at “5.1 million” (NIDA).
  • “Nearly 1 in 12 high school seniors reported nonmedical use of Vicodin; 1 in 20 reported abuse of OxyContin.”

Are you Addicted to Opioids?

Opioids Used to Treat Addiction

There are opioid medications which are actually used to treat opioid addiction and abuse in patients. They are often prescribed at rehab clinics, both inpatient and outpatient, and certain medications can be prescribed by doctors from their offices. In some cases, a patient may continue taking these drugs for months or years as they allow them to curb their withdrawal symptoms and cravings for harmful opioids like heroin.

Some opioids that are used to treat opioid addiction are buprenorphine (which, according to SAMHSA, is “an opioid partial agonist, meaning that it is an opioid but it can also “produce typical opioid agonist effects and side effects) and methadone (a synthetic opioid). Here are some facts about opioid medications used to treat opioid addiction:

  • These drugs are a large part of treatment as they can allow patients to focus on their behavioral therapy without cravings for other drugs. While all patients have different needs, these medications can often be very helpful to many people.
  • The NIDA states that “methadone and buprenorphine suppress withdrawal symptoms and relieve cravings” by “acting on the same targets in the brain as heroin and morphine.”
  • These medications are often criticized as many people believe that the only true way to recovery is through total abstinence from drugs, but they can be an incredible resource that have, on many occasions, “reduced or stopped use of injection drugs” (CDC).

There are many different types of opioids, all used for different purposes. Generally, though, they cause the same side effects and involve the same risks. With all types of opioid drugs, abuse only makes the drugs’ negative effects more intense and the possible risk of addiction and overdose higher.

For help finding addiction treatment near you, call 800-466-0354 ( Who Answers?)

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