Opiate treatments are most commonly used for their analgesic, or pain reducing, properties. These pharmacological effects are derived from nitrogen-containing compounds called alkaloids, which occur naturally within the opium poppy plant, or Papaver somniferum. Morphine and codeine are two of the most common opiate treatments. Both hydrocodone and oxycodone are derived from the poisonous alkaloid thebaine. These opiates are often employed as pain killers, cough suppressants, and antidiarrheals.
The term opiate applies primarily to the alkaloids that are naturally derived from the opium poppy's sap, but it can also refer to semi-synthetic opiate treatments processed from these natural alkaloids. Morphine and codeine are the two most well-known alkaloids found in opium. They are classified as narcotic substances, and their effects include pain relief, sleepiness, and impaired sensory abilities. Opiates interact with the body's opioid receptors in the central nervous system, which monitors the release of pain relieving chemicals, such as endorphins.
Morphine is a very powerful analgesic that can be naturally derived from opium. It comprises up to 12% of the alkaloid content, the largest proportion of any alkaloid found in opium. Morphine is used to treat severe, acute pain, and is also combined with other chemicals to produce semi-synthetic opiates such as heroin.
The codeine alkaloid is not as strong as morphine and is used to treat cases of mild to moderate pain. Codeine's weaker potency also allows for its use as a cough suppressant or antidiarrheal medication. It has also been prescribed for irritable bowel syndrome and narcolepsy, a disorder marked by severe fatigue and constant bouts of sleep during the day.
Thebaine, an alkaloid poisonous to humans in its original form, is used as a non-narcotic or non-addictive treatment. Several useful medications are produced from thebaine, including hydrocodone, a cough suppressant and analgesic, and oxycodone, an analgesic treatment for moderate to extreme pain. Thebaine can also be synthesized into oxymorphone, a powerful alternative to morphine that produces less immediate side effects.
Opium-based narcotics are commonly sought out by recreational drug users. Misuse of opiates creates a strong dependency, both physical and psychological, on the user. Heroin and morphine, two of the most powerful opiates, are especially addictive, and weaker opiate treatments can also lead to dependence if used chronically. If dependence has developed before the individual stops using the opiate, he or she may experience withdrawal. Overuse of opiates can cause serious complications including pulmonary edema, cardiac and respiratory failure, and other conditions that may result in death.