Barbiturate Addiction

Barbiturates (sometimes called “downers”) were once prescribed regularly to treat anxiety. However, this prescription depressant did not turn out to be as harmless as medical professionals once thought.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are a group of prescription drugs known as sedative-hypnotics. They are one of three categories of depressants, which include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medication. Under the Controlled Substances Act, barbiturates are classified as Schedule II, III, and IV drugs.

Barbiturates have been used effectively to treat a wide range of medical conditions, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Seizures

Some barbiturates are used as pre-surgery anesthesia due to their short-acting sedative properties, while others have more long-acting properties better suited for treating seizure disorders and other maladies. Overall, however, barbiturates are primarily used to treat seizure disorders and are not likely to be used to treat anxiety as much as they once were.

Barbiturates work by binding to specific GABA receptors inside the central nervous system, affecting:

  • Cognitive function
  • Motor skills
  • Sensory perceptions
  • Behavioral patterns

Barbiturates VS Benzodiazepines

It should be noted that nowadays, benzodiazepines are the preferred prescription medication to treat anxiety rather than barbiturates. Overall, this preference for prescribing benzos is because they are a safer medication.

Unlike barbiturates, benzodiazepines have a higher therapeutic index—which means it takes much more of the drug appearing in the system to create the therapeutic effects. This also means benzos have a wider margin for error and less likelihood of severe effects if the wrong amount is taken. On the contrary, barbiturates have a small therapeutic index, which could result in the patient experiencing negative effects without much shift in the dosage.

These days, barbiturates are primarily prescribed to treat seizures rather than anxiety or insomnia.

Common Barbiturate Brand Names

  • Amobarbital (Amytal®)
  • Secobarbital (Seconal®)
  • Butabarbital (Butisol®)
  • Phenobarbital (Luminal®)
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal®)

Barbiturate Side Effects

Side effects from barbiturates are common because the drugs have a very narrow therapeutic index, which means there isn’t much room for error in the dosage.

Even a small variation in dose puts you at high risk for dangerous side effects including barbiturate intoxication and overdose.

Short-Term Effects of Barbiturates

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Drowsiness
  • Changes in your mental state
  • Sluggishness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Mood swings

Long-Term Effects of Barbiturates

  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion
  • Lower inhibitions
  • Irritability
  • Emotional instability
  • Clammy skin

In some cases, barbiturates could have severe effects, including:

  • Coma
  • Paranoia
  • Irregular breathing
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Death

Barbiturate Abuse and Addiction

Abuse of barbiturates occurs when someone takes more than the recommended dose of barbiturates or uses this drug without having a prescription at all. Abusing barbiturates can easily lead to barbiturate intoxication, in which the person appears drunk, a stage that usually proceeds an overdose.

Barbiturates are most commonly abused alongside stimulant drugs (such as methamphetamines or cocaine) to counteract the symptoms of these “uppers.” Continued barbiturate abuse can cause users to develop a physical dependence on the drug, leading to substance abuse disorder or drug addiction.

When someone has been abusing barbiturates for a long period of time it becomes difficult for them to stop using the drug without professional help.

Am I Addicted to Barbiturates?

You may exhibit the following symptoms if you are addicted to barbiturates:

  • Physical dependence
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug
  • Neglecting your responsibilities
  • Seeking the drug to feel high
  • Experiencing strong cravings for the drug

Barbiturate Withdrawal

When you stop using barbiturates, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. These may reach peak intensity in as few as twelve hours and can last for a little over a week.

These symptoms can be mild or severe, depending on how long you took the drug and your dosage level. Although these are uncomfortable symptoms, they are all temporary.

Some of the withdrawal symptoms you can expect include:

  • High body temperature
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Loss of appetite
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety/panic attacks
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Cravings for barbiturates

Mild depression may also become evident throughout the withdrawal process. However, even though withdrawal is difficult, you can recover from barbiturate addiction with the right treatment program.

Barbiturate Overdose

A barbiturate overdose occurs when someone takes more than the normal or recommended amount of this medicine. This can either be intentional or by accident. Furthermore, combining this medication with alcohol or other drugs increases the risk of an overdose.

A person who has overdosed on barbiturates may show these symptoms:

  • Impeded judgment
  • Slurred speech
  • Fatigue
  • Coordination problems
  • Shallow breathing
  • Unconsciousness
  • Coma
  • Death

If you suspect someone is experiencing a barbiturate overdose, it’s important to call 911 immediately and stay with the person until help arrives. Acting quickly in an overdose situation can mean the difference between life and death.

Barbiturate Addiction Treatment

Barbiturate addiction is far less common than addictions to other drugs of abuse. However, there are still many options available for treatment and support to help you quit your barbiturate addiction.

These programs are often formatted to include both psychological counseling and behavioral therapy, which are designed to help the patient heal physically and psychologically.

Barbiturate Detoxification

When you have been taking barbiturates for long enough, you will likely experience severe, and possibly even dangerous withdrawal symptoms if you try to quit cold turkey. Medical detox is a much safer and more comfortable alternative to help your body rid itself of the barbiturates in your system.

During the detox process, a healthcare professional or team will monitor your vitals and provide you with medical care to ensure your safety while your body eliminates the barbiturates.

Barbiturate Treatment Programs

It’s quite common for people who struggle with barbiturate addiction to need additional support for their substance use. Depending on the severity of your addiction, there are inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities that are equipped to help you.

Inpatient rehab for barbiturate addictions requires a higher level of care compared to outpatient treatment. In this type of rehab, people with addictions can detox from their addictions and begin the recovery process in a supervised environment.

Partial hospitalization, meanwhile, offers the positive structure of an inpatient setting while allowing you to leave for work or family obligations. You will receive individualized medical treatment, therapy, support groups, and medical oversight by expert doctors and staff.

Doctors Note Dr. Kent Hoffman

Barbiturates, other than for a seizure disorder, have been largely replaced by benzodiazepines because they have a greater therapeutic index. When used properly under medical guidance, benzodiazepines are safer drugs than barbiturates. It’s also noted that they have a wider therapeutic index, and tolerance develops more slowly.

However, there is much more widespread abuse of benzodiazepines than there are barbiturates today because fewer barbiturates are prescribed.

Barbiturate Statistics

Prescriptions for barbiturates have decreased significantly since the 1970s—and, as a result, so did barbiturate abuse. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that barbiturate abuse has begun increasing within the last decade.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also reports the following statistics from a 2018 survey:

  • Almost 450,000 Americans (ages 12+) reported using barbiturates
  • Approximately 32,000 of those users misused their prescription medication
  • Roughly 251,000 Americans (ages 12+) tried a prescription sedative for the first time during the preceding year

Help is Around the Corner

It is stressful and difficult to watch a friend or loved one suffer from barbiturate addiction. One may feel helpless and unsure of what to do. We understand that recovery will be just as hard on friends and family members as it is on the addicts themselves.

We are here to connect you with resources to help you get the support you need so that you will never be alone on this journey.

Barbiturates FAQ

How do I know if I'm addicted to barbiturates?

Barbiturate addiction involves the excessive intake of barbiturates intended to induce sleep, relaxation, or euphoria. If you experience withdrawal symptoms when you are not using barbiturate, then chances are you are addicted to it.

Other signs of addiction to barbiturates include:

  • Neglecting your responsibilities
  • Using the drug outside of recommended dosage
  • Experiencing strong cravings for the drug
  • Lying to medical professionals to get more of the drug

How are barbiturates taken?

Although barbiturates can be taken in different ways, the most commonly used methods are by swallowing and injecting. Barbiturates can also be inhaled, but this is less common.

What are the street names for barbiturates?

Barbiturates are “downers”, or depressants known for inducing sleep. Some of the most common street names for barbiturates include:

  • Clems
  • Pinks
  • Nembies
  • Red Devils
  • Yellow Jackets
  • Collies
  • Goof Balls
  • Reds & Blues
  • Red Birds
  • Barbs
  • Blockbusters
  • Christmas Trees

What is the legal status of barbiturates in the United States?

Under the Controlled Substances Act, Barbiturates are classified as Schedule II, III, and IV depressants. They are legal to prescribe and are often used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and certain seizure disorders.

Reviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of Addiction Guide and ensures the quality of our website’s content and messaging.

Written by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

7 references
  1. Bhandari, S. (2020, November 16). Barbiturate abuse. WebMD. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/barbiturate-abuse#1
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, June 7). Prescription CNS depressants DrugFacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-cns-depressants
  3. Gupta, R. C., & Kofoed, J. (1966). Toxicological statistics for barbiturates, other sedatives, and tranquilizers in Ontario: a 10-year survey. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 94(16), 863–865.
  4. López-Muñoz, F., Ucha-Udabe, R., & Alamo, C. (2005). The history of barbiturates a century after their clinical introduction. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 1(4), 329–343.
  5. Skibiski J, Abdijadid S. Barbiturates. [Updated 2021 Feb 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539731/
  6. Suddock JT, Cain MD. Barbiturate Toxicity. [Updated 2021 Jul 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499875/
  7. UNODC - Bulletin on Narcotics - 1964 Issue 1 - 003. (964, January 1). United Nations: Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1964-01-01_1_page004.html

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