What are Synthetic Opioids?

Learn more about what synthetic opioids are, how they’re used, and the risks associated with taking them.

Table of Contents

What Are Synthetic Opioids?

Synthetic opioids are substances created in a laboratory that function similarly to natural opioids. Synthetic opioids attach to the same target receptors in the brain, thereby producing similar effects to organic opioid drugs like codeine and morphine. Unlike synthetic opioids, natural opioids are naturally occurring substances that are extracted from the seed pods of poppy plants.1

Synthetic opioids can be found in a variety of forms. When prescribed by a medical provider, synthetic opioids can come as a patch, lozenge, shot, liquid, or pill. When distributed illegally, synthetic opioids are often found as a powder, a pill, put into eye droppers, or made into nasal sprays.

Mechanism of Action of Opioids

An opioid’s mechanism of action includes attaching to receptors in the outer membrane of cells within the nervous system. There are three types of opioid receptors: mu, delta, and kappa.2

Most often, an opioid’s mechanism of action binds to the mu receptor, which triggers a series of chemical changes within and between neurons that lead to feelings of pleasure and pain relief.3

Types of Opioids

There are various types of opioid drugs, including:

  • Natural opioids: These occur naturally and are produced from poppy plants. These include morphine and codeine.
  • Semi-synthetic opioids: These are opioids that are created in a lab but derived from natural opioids, such as semi-synthetic heroin. Other semi-synthetic opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone.
  • Synthetic opioids: Synthetic opioids are produced in the laboratory and have no natural opioid derivative. The synthetic opioid list includes fentanyl, methadone, and tramadol.

Natural vs. Synthetic Opioids

Both naturally- occurring and synthetic opioids work to block pain signals and create feelings of euphoria.4

One of the biggest differences between synthetic opioids and natural opioids is their potency. Synthetic opioids are often the most potent and include fentanyl, tramadol, and methadone. Fentanyl is one of the strongest opioids and is fifty to one hundred times more potent than morphine. It was originally created to treat severe pain in those who are physically tolerant to other opioid medications.

Tramadol and Methadone

Tramadol is another synthetic opioid often used to alleviate moderate pain. Methadone is a long-acting full opioid agonist that has been approved to treat opioid substance use disorders, as well as pain management. Methadone can be used to block the effects of opioids.5

What are the Types of Synthetic Opioids?

The three synthetic narcotics listed above are examples of legal synthetic opioids when prescribed by a licensed medical provider or used for medical purposes. Other legal opioid drugs include oxycodone (such as OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (such as Vicodin), morphine, and codeine.

However, there are numerous illegal varieties of synthetic narcotics which are typically various forms of fentanyl. One of the most potent opioids, and a form of fentanyl, is carfentanil, which is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

How Do Synthetic Opioids Make You Feel?

Opioid drugs are medically prescribed to treat pain. However, due to the effect on the opioid receptor, opioid drugs and synthetic pain relievers also produce other effects as the opioid receptors not only regulate pain but also reward systems. Some of the common side effects of synthetic pain relievers include:

  • Pain relief
  • Feelings of euphoria or sense of well-being
  • Relaxation
  • Sleepiness
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Constipation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Shallow breathing
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Overdose

The feelings produced by both synthetic pain relievers and natural opioids can lead to addiction to opioids.

Signs of Opioid Use Disorder

Since opioids are highly addictive substances, there is an increased potential for abuse and addiction when using synthetic narcotics, semi-synthetic opioids, or natural opioids. Some signs of addiction to opioids include:

  • Obsessing over acquiring the drug
  • Buying opioids online or from strangers
  • Stealing opioids and/or money
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Chronic constipation
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased irritability or agitation
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sleep issues, including insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)

Due to the high potential of overdose with synthetic opioids, it is important to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of opioid sedation. This can look like extreme tiredness, decreased awareness, slowed breathing, and decreased heart rate. Contact emergency medical assistance if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of an overdose.

Criteria for Diagnosis of an Opioid Use Disorder

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorder, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the criteria for a diagnosis of an opioid use disorder include:

  • Taking opioids in larger amounts and over longer periods of time than intended
  • Having a persistent desire or unsuccessful attempts at being able to stop or cut down the use of opioids
  • Spending a great deal of time trying to obtain, use, or recover from the effects of opioids
  • Exhibiting cravings or strong urges to use the opioids
  • Failure to fulfill major work, home, or school obligations due to the opioid use
  • Continuing to use despite the knowledge that use is negatively impacting social or interpersonal relationships
  • Giving up important social or occupational functions due to the opioid use
  • Continuing to use despite potential hazardous situations
  • Recurrent use despite the knowledge that opioid use causes or exacerbates physical or psychological problems
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal

Effects of Synthetic Opioids

The production of synthetic opioids has also had major effects on drug culture and addiction rates. Some of the synthetic opioid effects include:6
  • Potency: Synthetic narcotics often have a higher potency. The result is the creation of substances like carfentanil, the most powerful synthetic opioid to date. This often results in higher abuse, addiction, and overdose rates.
  • Faster production and lower costs: Without having to plant and harvest poppy plants, synthetic opioid production has increased production time and lowered production costs.
  • Drug culture: The result of faster production, lower costs, and increased potency has led to an increase in opioid use. This has resulted in an increase in addiction to opioids and increased rates of overdosing on opioids.

Risks of Synthetic Opioids

The effects of both synthetic opioids and natural opioids are very similar. However, due to synthetic narcotics being more potent, they may come with a higher risk potential. These increased risks may include:7

  • Overdose: According to the CDC, death by opioid overdose has continued to rise, with 56,516 overdose deaths reported in 2020.
  • Vein damage: Injecting opioids is one of the most common ways to use the drug, and this comes with an increased risk of damage to veins. Injecting can result in blood clots, infection, increased risk of bloodborne illnesses like Hepatitis C or HIV, and damage to the tissue, resulting in collapsed veins.
  • Trafficking: With substances like fentanyl and semi-synthetic heroin being produced at a higher rate, this increases rates of drug trafficking, meaning that these drugs will be more easily accessible on the streets.

Get Treatment For Synthetic Opioids Addiction At Soledad House

Opioid addiction can be a struggle, but with the help of treatment, there is hope for recovery. Various types of treatment for synthetic opioid addiction include:

  • Detoxification: Opioid detox is the first step in the recovery process and can be done safely and effectively with medical support.
  • Inpatient programs: Inpatient treatment involves residing in a stable and controlled environment with 24-hour support during the recovery process.
  • Outpatient programs: Outpatient treatment is less restrictive than inpatient and involves attending education and therapy groups, typically between ten to twelve hours per week.
  • Therapy: Individual, group, and family/couples therapy are often combined for the best results during opioid addiction treatment. The therapies proven to be most effective are cognitive behavioral therapy, contingency management, dialectical behavior therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy.

Reach Out and Obtain Sustainable Wellness

At Soledad House, we provide holistic, individualized, and specialized addiction treatment for women that focuses on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Our program focuses on a wide array of programs, including individual therapy, group therapy sessions, relapse prevention education, family therapy, physical exercise, and nutrition education.

For more information about Soledad House and to learn how we can help treat opioid addiction, call us today at 866.314.3181 or contact us at https://soledadhouse.com/contact/.