Before there were benzodiazepines, there were barbiturates. These sedative medications, first introduced in the early 1900s, were popular on the recreational drug scenes of the 1960s and 1970s. People who used them found that the drugs decreased their anxieties, reduced their inhibitions, and treated side effects of illegal drugs.
While barbiturates are not prescribed today as much as they once were, which can be attributed to the development of newer and safer drug alternatives, they are still around and being misused and abused. And, actually, a more common class of drugs called benzodiazepines have generally replaced barbiturates, since they’re reported to have less severe side effects.
Barbiturates are psychologically and physically addicting, and the likelihood of overdose compared to other drugs is more prevalent because the difference between a safe and fatal dose is small.
Here, we take a look at barbiturates, including why they are dangerous, and how to address barbiturate addiction.
Table of Contents
What Is a Barbiturate?
Barbiturates, derived from barbituric acid, are central nervous system depressants that produce a wide range of effects on the body, which include mild sedation to coma. They have historically been used to treat anxiety, epilepsy, insomnia, and seizure disorders.
They are not commonly prescribed today since other drugs, such as benzodiazepines, have been deemed safer to use in their place. However, they can be used before surgery to relieve patients’ anxiety and tension and to control seizures.
Examples of barbiturates include:
- Amobarbital (Amytal)
- Butisol (Butabarbital sodium)
- Mephobarbital (Mebaral)
- Secobarbital (Seconal)
- Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
- Phenobarbital (Luminal)
- Butalbital (Fiorinal, Fioricet)
Some barbiturates are available as tablets or capsules while others are available in an oral liquid or injection form. People who abuse them may crush the pills into a powder, add it to a liquid, and inject it intravenously.
Like benzodiazepines, barbiturates slow the processes of the body’s central nervous system and stimulate the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter, which is found in the brain. These medications also reduce the heart rate, slow breathing, and increase drowsiness and relaxation. Effects of these drugs are similar to that of alcohol intoxication or benzodiazepine tranquilizers like Valium and Xanax.
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Kinds of Barbiturates
Barbiturates are classified by how long their effects last. They fall into four categories: ultra short-acting, short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting. According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, ultra short-acting barbiturates produce effects within one minute after intravenous use. Short-acting and intermediate-acting barbiturates take effect within 15 minutes to 40 minutes and can last up to six hours. The effects of long-acting ones can take effect in an hour and last up to 12 hours.
Street names for barbiturates depend on the particular drug being used. They are generally referred to as downers, barbs, dolls, or sleepers.
Why Are Barbiturates Abused?
Barbiturates are abused for several reasons. Some people use them to achieve a high that is similar to alcohol intoxication. Others use them to counteract the effects of stimulant drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamines, and “come down” from those drugs. Euphoria, pleasurable feelings, and a sense of well-being are experienced when barbiturates are used in a manner not intended.
Excessive barbiturate use can be habit-forming and lead to physical and psychological dependence. There is a perspective in the medical community that there is a fine line between a normal dose of a barbiturate and a toxic one that can prove fatal. Also, the risks of an overdose occurring are high when a barbiturate is used. This is why drugs that are deemed safer to use are prescribed instead.
What Are the Signs of Barbiturate Addiction?
When people abuse barbiturates, they may exhibit the following symptoms, which are similar to alcohol intoxication:
- Shallow breathing
- Slow, slurred speech
- Poor judgment
- Mood swings
- Motor control problems
- Physical coordination problems
- Unclear thinking, thinking difficulties
- Reduced emotional reactions
- Strong, seemingly unbearable drug cravings
- Constantly thinking about a barbiturate(s)
- Taking the drug outside of what is prescribed
- Not using the drug in the manner it was intended
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms 24-48 hours after the drug is last taken
- Taking the drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms
- Hiding use from family, friends, colleagues
- Isolation from others; strained relationships
- Inability to stop using the drug despite repeated attempts to quit
- Feeling like you can’t function without the drug
- Mixing a barbiturate with alcohol (polysubstance abuse)
- Using the drug despite the negative consequences that result from doing so, such as job loss
Signs of Barbiturate Addiction
Longtime barbiturate users who stop using the medications must do so gradually. Quitting the barbiturates abruptly, known as “going cold turkey,” is strongly discouraged, as doing so can result in death. Uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, anxiety, stomach cramping, nausea, and vomiting in cases of small-dose barbiturate use. Long-term barbiturate users who quit suddenly can experience hallucinations, seizures, and suicidal thoughts.
What Is Involved in Barbiturate Addiction Treatment?
If you or someone you know has misused or abused barbiturates, seek medical help at a hospital or a licensed treatment center. Large doses of barbiturates can result in intoxication or drowsiness, and the possibility that more serious symptoms can occur is there, according to the Global Information Network About Drugs. Barbiturate overdose can be life-threatening, so a medical evaluation is advised.
Overcoming a barbiturate addiction is not a short or comfortable process. Longtime users are advised to enter an addiction treatment program and receive help from professionals who can help them navigate their way through recovery.
Barbiturate addiction treatment typically will start with a detox. This medically monitored involves around-the-clock care to ensure clients are kept safe and comfortable as they are given medicines and other care to ease withdrawal symptoms and make them manageable. Medical professionals may use a tapering method to wean clients slowly off barbiturates. How the process is set up depends on the individual’s age, drug use history, medical history, physiology, and other factors.
Longer-acting barbiturates, such as phenobarbital, may be administered to combat withdrawal symptoms, and medications may be prescribed to treat specific withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting.
Once detox is finished, clients are usually encouraged to enter a treatment program that helps them address their addiction, particularly from the physical and psychological perspectives. These treatment programs can be tailored to an individual’s needs and preferences. Inpatient treatment, which can last anywhere from 28 days to 90 days in a facility, depending on the program, involves therapies designed to help people work through and overcome addiction.
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Treatment also can incorporate 12-step programs, SMART Recovery, holistic therapies such as yoga and acupuncture, and individual counseling and group counseling.
Outpatient treatment may appeal to clients who are in the beginning stages of barbiturate addiction or have a mild case of it. Outpatient therapy provides more flexibility as clients stay in their own residence as they work drug treatment into their schedules. Clients are required to attend structured sessions three to five times a week or more and are completely responsible for keeping their environment free of negative influences that can that can impair their recovery.
Recovering barbiturate users may want to consider using aftercare services to help them focus on their recovery goals and reduce their chances of relapse. Some people pursue follow-up medical care and ongoing therapies to help manage post-acute withdrawal symptoms, known as PAWS, that can happen long after dependence on the drug has passed. Barbiturate-related PAWS include anxiety, cognitive impairment, irritability, and depression.
How Dangerous Is Barbiturate Addiction?
The addictive nature of barbiturates, as well as their narrow therapeutic range, makes them dangerous and deadly drugs to take. One reason these sedatives can be lethal is that of how long they stay in the body after they are ingested. Because of this, one could easily overdose on barbiturates and fall into a coma or die. The danger increases as barbiturate users abuse the sedatives concurrently with other drugs like alcohol or benzodiazepines.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), some users also mix barbiturates and opiates such as heroin or OxyContin. Those who take those combinations are either people who are new to using these substances together who don’t know they can lead to a coma or death or experienced users who mix and use them on purpose to change their consciousness. The second group is difficult to treat, according to the NLM.
NLM lists the following complications of an overdose:
- Head injury and concussion from falls when intoxicated
- Miscarriage in pregnant women or damage to the developing baby in the womb
- Neck and spinal injury and paralysis from falls when intoxicated
- Pneumonia from depressed gag reflex and aspiration (fluid or food down the bronchial tubes into the lungs)
- Severe muscle damage from lying on a hard surface while unconscious, which may lead to permanent kidney injury
Barbiturate Abuse Facts and Statistics
- Barbiturates were either directly or indirectly responsible for 396 deaths in 2013.
- More than 2,500 barbiturate medications have been formulated since the 1900s; about 50 were marketed for human use. Today, approximately 12 barbiturates are used for medical purposes.
- About 1 in 10 cases of overdosing on barbiturates or a mixture that contains barbiturates are lethal.
Start Your Journey to Recovery Today
If you or someone you care about is struggling with an addiction to barbiturates, Arete Recovery can help you or your loved one start the journey to freedom from barbiturate addiction today. Call our 24-hour helpline now at (855) 781-9939 and talk with one of our addiction specialists to learn more about your treatment options, ensuring a successful recovery, or contact us online.
Barbiturate intoxication and overdose. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000951.htm
- (n.d.). Barbiturates. Retrieved April 10, 2018, from http://www.pamf.org/teen/risk/drugs/depressants/barbiturates.html
FNP, K. D. (2016, May 10). Barbiturates: Uses, side effects, and risks. Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/310066.php