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.
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:
- Fentanyl (Sublimaze): This drug treats severe pain, such as the pain associated with advanced cancer. Its potency is
50–100 timesthat of morphine.
- Tramadol (Ultram): This drug treats moderate to moderately severe pain.
- Methadone (Dolophine): This drug treats pain, but doctors may also use it to treat opioid use disorder.
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.
Some synthetic opioids have a chemical structure similar to that of fentanyl. Examples of illegal, recreational fentanyl include:
- acetyl fentanyl
- furanyl fentanyl
- butyryl fentanyl
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:
- hydrocodone, which Vicodin contains alongside acetaminophen
- oxycodone (OxyContin)
- oxymorphone (Opana)
- hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
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
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:
- constriction of the pupils
- nausea and vomiting
- urinary retention
- slow, shallow breathing
The possible overdose effects include:
- cold, clammy skin
- a bluish tinge to the skin
- extreme constriction of the pupils, making them appear as pinpoints
- 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
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
- Health Center Locator: The Health Resources and Services Administration provides this search tool, which helps a person find a health center in a certain area.
- Mental Health and Substance Use Insurance Help: The Department of Health & Human Services provides information and resources pertaining to insurance, along with other financial aid options for people with a low income.
- Opioid Treatment Program Directory: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers this search tool for locating programs in a particular state.
- Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator: People can use this search tool from the SAMHSA to find treatment facilities in a certain area.
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.