Synthetic opioids derive from human-made chemicals, unlike naturally occurring opioids, which come from opium poppy plants. Some laboratories make prescription synthetic opioids for medical use, but others make illegal versions for recreational use.

Synthetic opioids affect the brain in the same way as natural opioids, meaning that they produce the same effects. Both types can cause dependence and addiction, and overdosing on either may be fatal.

This article describes what synthetic opioids are and lists other drugs within the opioid family. It also examines the risks of the drugs and lists resources that offer help for people with opioid use disorder.

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Synthetic opioids are substances that manufacturers create in a laboratory. They have the same effects on the body as opioids that naturally occur in the seed pods of certain opium poppy plants.

Some people take prescription synthetic opioids for medical reasons, and some take illegal synthetic opioids recreationally.

Below are some additional details about the different types of synthetic opioids.

Synthetic opioids for medical use

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the following synthetic opioids for medical use:

Synthetic opioids for illegal recreational use

Some laboratories make synthetic opioids for illegal recreational drug use. Some of these drugs are in powder form, whereas others are in the form of tablets that mimic the appearance of pharmaceutical opioids.

The laboratories that make these synthetic opioids sometimes combine these drugs with other drugs, such as heroin. Many synthetic opioids have higher potencies than heroin or morphine.

Some synthetic opioids have a chemical structure similar to that of fentanyl. Examples of illegal, recreational fentanyl include:

  • acetyl fentanyl
  • furanyl fentanyl
  • butyryl fentanyl
  • beta-hydroxythiofentanyl

Semisynthetic opioids are naturally derived opioids that have undergone some degree of chemical processing.

Drug manufacturers create these drugs in laboratories. Doctors may prescribe them to alleviate moderate to severe pain following an injury or a surgical procedure.

Examples of semisynthetic opioids include:

As with synthetic opioids, certain semisynthetic opioids have illegal recreational uses. An example is heroin, which is a drug that manufacturers make from morphine. Heroin is a highly addictive opioid. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2019, heroin was responsible for more than 28% of opioid overdose deaths in the United States.

As well as synthetic and semisynthetic opioids, there are natural opioids called opiates. Most types have similar effects, including pain relief and euphoria, and they typically pose the same risks.

Natural opioids include:

  • Morphine: Doctors prescribe this drug for moderate to severe pain, such as postsurgical pain or pain related to cancer.
  • Codeine: As this drug is weaker than morphine, doctors may prescribe it for moderate pain or cough relief. It is available as a single drug or as part of a combination drug, such as co-codamol, which is a mixture of codeine and acetaminophen.
  • Thebaine: Manufacturers use this opiate to make semisynthetic opioids, synthetic opioids, and some other types of drugs. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), it is also a drug of misuse.

As with other types of opioids, synthetic opioid use is associated with certain risks, including:

  • Tolerance: When a person develops tolerance, they need to take a higher dosage of the drug to achieve a similar effect.
  • Dependence: Dependence means that a person continues to use a drug despite the significant issues that arise as a consequence.
  • Addiction: Addiction refers to a powerful, compulsive urge to continue to use a drug.

The side effects of synthetic opioids are similar to those of natural and semisynthetic opioids. They include:

The possible overdose effects include:

  • cold, clammy skin
  • a bluish tinge to the skin
  • extreme constriction of the pupils, making them appear as pinpoints
  • coma
  • breathing failure, which can lead to death

A person should not take synthetic opioids in amounts that exceed the recommended dosage, as doing so can cause coma and even death. The CDC reports that in 2019, there were more than 36,000 deaths relating to the use of synthetic opioids other than methadone. This number represents almost 73% of all opioid-related deaths that occurred that year.

According to the CDC, millions of people in the U.S. have opioid use disorder. This is the medical term for a problematic pattern of opioid use that causes severe impairment or distress.

The appropriate treatment of opioid use disorder can prevent overdose and death, and a person can make a full recovery.

The exact treatment will vary on a case-by-case basis, but it will likely involve medications in combination with some form of behavioral therapy.

The CDC provides the following resources for those seeking help for a substance use disorder:

Synthetic opioids are human-made chemicals that do not derive from natural sources, unlike opiates, which come from the opium poppy plant. Manufacturers may sometimes use some degree of chemical processing on opiates to create semisynthetic opioids.

Some laboratories make prescription synthetic opioids for medical use, and some make these drugs for illegal recreational use.

As with all opioids, the synthetic variety can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction. An overdose can have severe and potentially life threatening adverse effects, such as coma. In some cases, it can be fatal.

Due to the dangers associated with opioids, experts encourage individuals to seek help for opioid use disorder. Anyone looking for further advice and information should speak with a doctor.