What Are Barbiturates?
Barbiturates are central nervous system depressant medications. Though largely replaced by benzodiazepines, the drugs are still sometimes used for medical purposes, especially during surgeries and by veterinarians.
Before the abuse potential of barbiturates was recognized, the medications were widely used for a number of purposes, including as anesthetics, anticonvulsants, hypnotics, and sedatives. Conditions barbiturates are most commonly used to treat include anxiety, insomnia, and seizures.
Barbiturates are classified into four groups, depending on the time it takes for the medication to take effect in the body: ultrashort-acting, short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting. The drugs are mostly available in pill or tablet form.
People who abuse barbiturates usually do so to force the effects of the drugs more quickly or to increase the effects. Barbiturates produce feelings of calm and sedation, can promote relaxation and sleep, and can lead to quick intoxication, so many people abuse the drugs to seek these effects.
People with barbiturate prescriptions may change the dosage, frequency of dosage, or take the medication in a way other than prescribed, such as crushing and snorting a tablet for faster effects rather than ingesting it orally.
Whatever the case, barbiturate abuse is dangerous. The drugs are highly addictive and often very powerful. Abusing these drugs can cause them to take effect more quickly than intended, which can be dangerous as many are designed to take effect slowly over time.
Further, the difference between a safe dose of barbiturates and a lethal dose is very small, so a person abusing barbiturates is constantly at risk of overdose and other adverse effects. One of the greatest risks of barbiturate abuse, though, is the risk of developing a barbiturate addiction.
Because of the highly addictive nature of barbiturates, abuse of the drugs quickly lead to addiction, or a mental reliance on the drugs. A person with a barbiturate addiction will have lost control over their barbiturate use, will spend a lot of time seeking the drugs or alternative drugs with similar effects when they can’t get barbiturates, and may continue abusing the drugs even if abuse causes harm to themselves or others.
Addiction to any drug can lead to life consequences, such as effects to relationships, finances, school, or work. People who become addicted to prescription drugs like barbiturates may spend a lot of time seeking the drug through illicit or unethical means, like “doctor shopping,” or obtaining multiple prescriptions for the drug.
Signs of a barbiturate addiction can include:
- extreme drowsiness or dizziness
- poor coordination
- lack of judgment skills
- hostile or violent behavior
- symptoms of psychosis
- denial of addiction
- hiding or covering up drug use
- guilt or shame over drug use
- withdrawal symptoms
- developing tolerance
What begins as a way to relieve symptoms of a certain condition, like anxiety or insomnia, may lead to a cycle of addiction which can be difficult to break without help and support. After addiction develops, it often isn’t long before a person develops a physical dependence on barbiturates as well.
A barbiturate dependence occurs when a person physically relies on the drug to feel normal or function. This means when they aren’t using barbiturates, they’ll experience uncomfortable, even painful withdrawal symptoms, like headache, nausea, and vomiting. The withdrawal process is often responsible for keeping people abusing drugs again and again.
Unfortunately, barbiturates are so addictive that a person can become dependent on the drugs after only a short time of abusing them. For this reason, people taking barbiturate medications should be extremely careful not to exceed dosage, increase dosage, or change the way they take the drugs in any way without first consulting their doctor.
Commonly Abused Barbiturates
There are currently about 12 barbiturate prescriptions in use on the medical market. Knowing which barbiturates are in use can help people know which medications are dangerous to abuse, how to avoid abuse, and how to recognize signs of abuse and addiction.
The following is a list of commonly abused barbiturates:
- Alurate (aprobarbital)
- Amytal (amobarbital)
- Butisol (butabarbital)
- Luminal (phenobarbital)
- Nembutal (pentobarbital)
- Pentothal (thiopental)
- Seconal (secobarbital)
Side Effects Of Barbiturate Abuse
Barbiturates work to depress the central nervous system, producing feelings of calm and sedation, and, when abused, euphoria (increased happiness). Effects such as these may work well to treat symptoms of anxiety, seizures, or sleep troubles. Abusing barbiturates, however, increases the intensity of and rate at which people experience these effects.
Common side effects of barbiturate abuse include:
- impairment to motor control
- slurred speech
- slowed or shallow breathing
- trouble with coordination
- trouble with concentration
Barbiturate Withdrawal Symptoms
Barbiturate withdrawal symptoms occur when a person develops a physical dependence on barbiturates then suddenly stops use of them. Barbiturate withdrawal can be quite dangerous, so if a person shows signs of withdrawal and has been taking a barbiturate prescription, it’s important to seek help for them right away.
Signs of barbiturate withdrawal may include:
Barbiturate withdrawal can also cause a condition known as rebound effects in which a person experiences the effects for which they were taking the medication, often with a higher level of intensity, including anxiety, insomnia, and seizures.
Barbiturate withdrawal symptoms can occur as early as 12 to 16 hours after the last dose was taken and may last for a few days up to a few weeks. The intensity and duration of withdrawal symptoms typically depend on the severity of a person’s physical dependence.
Long-Term Effects Of Barbiturate Abuse
Perhaps the most dangerous effects of barbiturate abuse include those caused by large or excessive doses of barbiturates, such as dangerously slowed or shallow breathing. This can result in lack of oxygen reaching the body and brain, which can cause many problems. Left untreated, this condition can lead to barbiturate overdose.
When a person abuses barbiturates for a prolonged period of time, this can lead to long-term, adverse effects as well.
Some possible consequences of long-term barbiturate abuse include:
- coordination loss or changes
- impaired memory or judgment
- suicidal thoughts or ideation
- coma or sudden death
Dangers Of Mixing Barbiturates And Other Drugs
Because barbiturates are such powerful drugs, mixing them with other drugs can have dangerous results, especially when mixing them with other depressants like alcohol. There is a fair amount of cross-tolerance in people who abuse multiple depressants. A person abusing frequent or large doses of barbiturates may not realize they are becoming intoxicated while drinking, putting them at greater risk of overdose.
Further, depressants all work to depress the central nervous system, slowing certain body functions like breathing and heart rates. Combining two depressants, like barbiturates and alcohol, can increase the rate at which breathing and heart rates are slowed, reducing them to dangerously low levels.
If a person isn’t aware they are becoming intoxicated and continues drinking and taking barbiturates, they are likely to overdose.
Signs Of A Barbiturate Overdose
Tolerance to the calming, sedative effects of barbiturates can happen very quickly as a person becomes addicted. However, a person does not also develop tolerance to the lethal effects, or the effects which can be dangerous and lead to fatal overdose. Instead, continued barbiturate abuse puts a person at risk of overdose with each use as the drug builds up in a person’s system.
It’s important to know the signs of barbiturate overdose so help can be sought right away for anyone who may be experiencing overdose, which is considered a medical emergency. Unfortunately, the U.S. National Library of Medicine reports about one in 10 people will die from a barbiturate overdose, so seeking proper treatment as early as possible can often help avoid further consequences.
Signs of a barbiturate overdose include:
- dangerously slowed or shallow breathing
- extreme drowsiness
- inability to walk straight
- increased or high body temperature
- lack of judgment skills
- nausea and/or vomiting
- slurred speech
- in extreme cases, coma
Barbiturate overdose can lead to a number of consequences as well, including hyperthermia (extremely high body temperature, which can lead to a number of health complications if left untreated), heart failure, and death.
Treatment For Barbiturate Abuse And Addiction
Because barbiturates are such addictive drugs, treatment for barbiturate abuse and addiction should be comprehensive, and is often best administered in an inpatient setting. Inpatient addiction treatment programs can help individuals overcome both physical dependence and mental reliances (addictions) to substances like barbiturates.
Inpatient treatment allows recovering individuals the space, environment, and support necessary to achieve sobriety and learn to manage addiction long-term. These programs achieve these goals by offering various treatments used together to help foster lasting skills which equip a person to succeed in recovery.
Some treatment methods and therapies used include counseling, individual and group therapy, medication-assisted treatment, alternative therapies (such as adventure or equine therapy), and medically supervised detoxification.
People looking to overcome their addictions and seek a fulfilling, substance-free life enjoy the greatest treatment outcomes within inpatient programs, but may also find excellent aftercare and continued care within outpatient programs, support groups, and 12-step groups.Article resources
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Medical News Today
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Medline Plus