Narcotics vs. Opioids: Are Opioids Narcotics?

Narcotic and opioid are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. Is there any difference between narcotics vs opioids? Find out on HealthyPlace.

The narcotics vs opioids question is a common one. Are opioids narcotics? The answer depends upon who is using the terms “narcotic” and “opioid.”

Where the term is used and what is meant by the term also has to do with whether narcotics and opioids are the same things. Here’s a straightforward look at the rather confusing use of these two drug-related terms.

Opioids vs. Narcotics, Technically Speaking

Opioid drugs used to be called narcotics. By extension, the term “narcotic” exclusively referred to opioids. Even today, opioids are classified as narcotics.

In official circles, such as the professional medical community, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), National Institute of Health, and more, the issue of narcotics vs opioids is actually a non-issue.

“Narcotics” technically refers to

Part of the reason that there is no official difference between these two terms is that “narcotics” traditionally referred exclusively to opioids for the effects opioids have on the brain and body. By nature, narcotics (opioids) are substances that

  • Decrease pain
  • Slow breathing
  • Decrease anxiety
  • Lower aggression
  • Increase calm, sedation
  • Induce drowsiness
  • Create a sense of apathy
  • Interrupt one’s ability to concentrate
  • Cause constipation
  • Induce nausea and vomiting
  • Carry a high risk of addiction and overdose

Narcotics—opioids—are available legally as prescription opioid pain killers (Vicodin, codeine, and more) as well as illegally (such as heroin).

Similar terms for the drugs that cause the above effects are

  • Narcotics
  • Opioids
  • Analgesics
  • Painkillers
  • Drugs for pain

Narcotics vs Opioids, Unofficially Speaking

Opioids were traditionally classified as narcotics, and they still are narcotics. However, the term “narcotic” has become much like “Kleenex” or “Band-Aid.” When many people need a tissue, they ask for a Kleenex regardless of the brand sitting on the table. And when you get a cut, do you ask for a bandage or a Band-Aid? There’s a high likelihood that you ask for a Band-Aid. These are brand names that have become common words for all related products.

“Narcotic” is a term for a specific type of drugs (opioids) that has become common vernacular when discussing all drugs, especially of the illicit variety (Types of Opioids and Opioids Examples).

  • A “narc” is a police officer or other agent who enforces drug laws; “Narc” is short for narcotics agent, and here narcotics refers to all drugs, not just opiates
  • Narcotics Anonymous is a support group for anyone struggling with drug addiction—all drugs, not just opiates

Although it is technically incorrect, “narcotics” has come to be associated with all illegal drugs when in reality, though, it means both legal and illegal opiates. Because of this, in professional medical communities, the term “opioids” has replaced use of the word “narcotics” to refer to painkilling drugs.

Are opioids and narcotics the same thing? Technically, they are. There has been a separation in the use of the words, however. When you hear the use of opioids and narcotics, know that they might be the same thing, or narcotics might be used more broadly. Knowing the different meanings of narcotics vs opioids will help you make sense of what you’re hearing.

article references

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, December 16). Narcotics vs. Opioids: Are Opioids Narcotics?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: December 30, 2021

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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