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What is the Difference Between Heroin and Morphine?

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

Medically reviewed by

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

February 1, 2019

Derived from the opium poppy plant commonly found in the Middle East and parts of Asia and Europe, both Heroin and Morphine are potent drugs that are categorized as opioids. Heroin and morphine are both known for their pain-relieving properties, however, they can differ greatly in strength.

One of the most notable differences in morphine and heroin is the fact that one can be legally administered and the other cannot. Heroin, often sold illegally on the streets, is notably more potent than morphine, which is often prescribed for pain relieve after a severe trauma or major surgery. How can two drugs that are derived from the same plant and have similar chemical structures be so different?

What Is An Opioid?

It is a common misconception that analgesic opioids reduce pain, when in reality they actually change the way we perceive pain. Opioids react with your brain by binding to opioid receptors in your central nervous system. Your body does naturally produce some opioid-like chemicals, which is why these receptors exist in the first place.

Naturally, these opioid receptors would typically be activated during a time of extreme duress or pain, during which these receptors would provide enough of an effect to get you through whatever immediate danger you are in without feeling pain or fear. An example of this would be when someone goes into “shock” after a car accident, and they do not feel the pain from their injuries immediately.

When these opioid receptors are activated by synthetic opioids that you take either orally or through an injection, the effects can be strong enough to block the pain signals being sent to your brain from a major accident or trauma. While this pain relief can be a benefit, opioids can also cause your breathing and heart rate to slow to an unnatural level, sometimes leaving a feeling of calmness or serenity in its path.

This calming effect is one of the reasons opioids are so commonly abused. Another reason opioids may be illegally obtained is because an individual is addicted or dependent on the drug. Opioids are one of the most addictive prescriptions available in the United States, destroying lives as the opioid epidemic sweeps across the country. Even if an individual wants to stop taking opioids, it is a long and challenging road without professional intervention.

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The Evolution Of The Opium Poppy

The opium poppy has been used for its painkilling properties for thousands of years. It pops up countless times in ancient texts from the Egyptians and Sumerians, and tales of its miracle-like qualities can be found in texts from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. In ancient times, cultures would chew on the leaves of the opium poppy plant, or consume the black tar like substance found in its seed pod for an intense effect.

Morphine was derived from the opium poppy plant before heroin, and was isolated by a German scientist in 1805. Morphine was heralded as a miracle drug and was easily accessible, available anywhere from grocery stores to farmers markets in the 1800s. Its addictive qualities weren’t discovered until decades later, which lead to heavy restrictions and precautions on the drug.

Morphine is widely used in medical applications for its sedative and pain relieving properties. Especially before and after major surgery, morphine is a staple at just about any medical center across the country. Morphine is so strong that it still surpasses many of its synthetic opioid relatives as one of the strongest analgesics, or painkillers, available on the market today.

Heroin is actually created from morphine. Heroin was derived from morphine for the first time in 1874, originally created as a safer and less addictive version of morphine. We know today that this was not the case at all, and that heroin comes with a whole list of health risks and addictive qualities.

Heroin and Morphine Are Very Similar

Many people wonder if heroin is made from morphine, then wouldn’t its effect be similar? The answer is both yes and no. Heroin affects the brain in the same way as morphine, by binding to and blocking signals from reaching the opioid receptors in your central nervous system. In this sense, it does provide the same effect on your perception of pain as morphine would.

Heroin and morphine are both opioids, which is why they can both bind to the same receptors in your brain and spinal cord. While the effect of pain relief may be similar, the difference is how this type of high feels. Many users report the rush of a heroin high to be much more intense than that of a morphine high.

This may be partly because of how lipid-soluble heroin is compared to pure morphine. Since your brain is lipid-dense, heroin will absorb more quickly and efficiently into your central nervous system than morphine can. The effect of this is an almost immediate, more intense high that lasts for a short time.

Because of the solubility of heroin in your brain, it will take less heroin to get the same effect as morphine. Heroin is also more easily accessible than morphine, with a steady supply of it on the streets of many cities. Since morphine is a prescribed medication, it is traceable and kept under close watch as the opium epidemic continues to grow.

Withdrawal Symptoms Of Heroin And Morphine

Like all opioids, both heroin and morphine are highly addictive drugs. Morphine is so addictive that withdrawal symptoms can present themselves as little as 8-12 hours after the last dose, or as soon as the drugs effects start to wear off. Often lasting 7-10 days, the withdrawal symptoms of both heroin and morphine can be extremely difficult to get through without professional help.

The peak time frame for withdrawal symptoms from both morphine and heroin is around 24-72 hours after the effects of the drug fade from your system. During this peak phase, symptoms of withdrawal may include:

  • Intense cravings for more opioids
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia and night terrors
  • Hallucinations
  • Fever
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea and weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Inability to feel pleasure
  • Muscle pain

As physical withdrawal symptoms begin to decline, it is not uncommon for psychological withdrawal symptoms to intensify. This can often be a tricky phase of detoxing to tackle, as cravings are intense and depression, anxiety and fear run rampant in the mind. This is why medical detox is often recommended for heroin and morphine addiction, as medication and clinical supervision can help ease some of the hardships of withdrawal.

Get Help Today

If you or a loved one struggles from heroin or morphine addiction, seeking out professional help is the best first step to take towards recovery. Our addiction treatment specialists are available to take your call 24/7, and are standing by to answer any questions you may have about your addiction or the programs rehab can offer. Your call is always confidential. Let us help you begin your journey of recovery, give us a call today.

British Journal of Anesthesia - Opioids and the Control of Respiration

Medline Plus - Opiate and Opioid Withdrawal

The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment - How Do Opioids Work in the Brain?

The Library of Addictive Drugs - History of Heroin

NIH - Addiction Science and Clinical Practice

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