Barbiturates are depressant medications that can provide pain relief and produce strong sedative effects for the treatment of anxiety and seizures.
Long known for being highly addictive and easily toxic, barbiturates have largely been replaced by newer medications believed to be safer and less unpredictable.
Barbiturates were most commonly prescribed in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, but fell out of favor among prescribers due to their high risk for drug poisoning and addiction.
Although prescribing rates for barbiturates have declined, however, the rates of recreational use are on the rise – most notably in teenagers and young adults.
There are several ways barbiturates can be abused: by taking higher doses than prescribed, taking more frequent doses, mixing them with other drugs, or using barbiturates without a prescription.
As recreational drugs, barbiturates are most often referred to by their nicknames.
Street names for barbiturates include:
- yellow jackets
- blue devils
If you know someone who takes barbiturates or has access to them, it is important to understand their effects and potential dangers.
With medical and behavioral treatment, consequences of barbiturate abuse can be effectively treated. If someone has developed a psychological addiction to barbiturates, inpatient treatment within a drug rehab program may be required.
Commonly Abused Barbiturate Prescriptions
There are a number of barbiturates in the United States that can be used to treat various health problems, including epileptic seizures, headaches, pain, or as an anesthetic for surgical procedures.
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They have also been used for assisted suicides and in veterinary clinics to put animals to sleep. The uses of barbiturates can vary depending on the type of barbiturate used or prescribed.
Commonly abused barbiturate prescription drugs include:
- butabarbital (Butisol)
- secobarbital (Seconal)
- amobarbital (Amytal)
- pentobarbital (Nembutal)
- methohexital (Brevital)
- primidone (Mysoline)
- butalbital (Capacet, Fioricet)
What separates one barbiturate from another is the intended medical use, recommended dose, and the duration of their effects.
Based on how long their effects last, barbiturates are further classified as short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting.
This means that some barbiturates can cause effects that last longer than others, and may take longer to leave a person’s system.
Side Effects And Symptoms Of Barbiturate Abuse
Similar to benzodiazepines, barbiturates work by acting on a chemical in the brain known as GABA. This interaction causes a slowing of brain activity, resulting in relaxing effects that can be useful for managing seizures and convulsions.
However, several other side effects can also occur with the use of barbiturates and may be more dangerous when taken in high doses or when mixed with other drugs.
Known side effects and symptoms of barbiturate abuse include:
- decreased pain response
- poor judgment
- decreased coordination
- slurred speech
- reduced inhibition
Taking barbiturates with other drugs, or taking them in any way other than prescribed by a doctor may result in additional side effects.
Signs Of Barbiturate Abuse And Addiction
In addition to side effects, there are also several behavioral signs that can indicate barbiturate abuse. Frequent abuse of barbiturates can affect how people act around others and impact how well they function in their daily lives.
Signs of barbiturate abuse and addiction may include:
- injecting or snorting barbiturates
- taking pills from someone else’s prescription
- constant drowsiness or fatigue
- physical dependence
- using barbiturates with other drugs (e.g. cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol, opioids)
- missing work or having difficulties in the home as a result of drug use
- continuing to use barbiturates despite negative effects on physical or mental health
- being unable to reduce or stop drug use
Barbiturates can become addictive in a relatively short amount of time, even among those who take the drug as prescribed.
If you are prescribed barbiturates for a health condition, it is important to take it exactly as directed by your doctor. Do not let anyone else take pills from your prescription.
Abusing barbiturates by taking higher doses or taking it more frequently than directed can lead to increased tolerance and physical dependence much quicker. This can make it difficult to stop taking the drug and increases the risk of severe withdrawal.
Dangers Of Barbiturate Abuse
With the recent rise of recreational barbiturate abuse, it is important to understand the risks associated with using these drugs.
Compared to most newer medications, treating severe reactions to barbiturates is more challenging and may require swift medical intervention to prevent life-threatening consequences.
The primary dangers linked to barbiturate abuse include:
- mixing barbiturates with other depressants (including alcohol)
- drug poisoning or overdose
Abusing Barbiturates With Other Drugs (Polysubstance Abuse)
It is common for people who abuse barbiturates to take them with other depressants like alcohol to feel a greater high, or to counteract the effects of stimulants like cocaine. This mixing of drugs is known as polysubstance abuse.
One of the greatest concerns about barbiturates is that they can affect people in different ways, resulting in relatively unpredictable outcomes.
Mixing barbiturates with other drugs such as opioids or alcohol can increase this danger and may lead to swift and severe drug poisoning within the body.
Barbiturate poisoning— also known as toxicity or overdose— is the most serious risk associated with barbiturate abuse. This can be life-threatening and lead to coma or death without prompt medical intervention.
Overdose can occur by either taking high doses of barbiturates alone or taking barbiturates in addition to alcohol or other drugs.
Common combinations that lead to deadly overdose include barbiturates and alcohol and mixing barbiturates with opioids.
Compared to drugs more widely prescribed today, the difference between a therapeutic dose of barbiturates and a deadly one is small. Knowing the signs and symptoms of an overdose can be life-saving.
If someone who has taken barbiturates is experiencing any of the following symptoms, call 9-1-1 right away:
- loss of balance or difficulty walking
- extreme drowsiness
- difficulty thinking
- low blood pressure
- slow or shallow breathing
- low body temperature
- slurred speech
- uncontrollable eye movements
- loss of consciousness
Elderly people may be at greater risk for overdose in smaller doses due to differences in how their bodies metabolize drugs.
Treatment for barbiturate overdose may require intubation, the use of activated charcoal, and medical observation within an inpatient hospital unit.
Additional Medical Consequences Of Barbiturate Abuse
In addition to overdose, there are several other consequences that can occur as a result of acute and chronic barbiturate abuse.
Medical complications that can result from barbiturate abuse include:
- miscarriage in pregnant individuals
- brain injury due to lack of oxygen reaching the brain (hypoxia)
- memory loss
- fetal complications
- liver damage
- increased risk for falls and injuries while intoxicated
Barbiturate Withdrawal: Symptoms And Treatment
Abusing barbiturates for even a short amount of time carries the risk of developing physical dependence.
Becoming dependent on barbiturates can make it more difficult to stop using the drugs, as this can trigger physical and mental symptoms within hours of a person’s last dose.
Experiencing uncomfortable symptoms following reduced or stopped doses can be a sign of withdrawal. This is the body’s reaction to the drug leaving your system after a prolonged period of barbiturate use.
Barbiturate withdrawal can become severe and even fatal without medical supervision and support.
If you or someone you know has become dependent on barbiturates, do not attempt to stop taking them on your own. Seek professional help as soon as possible.
The most serious risks of barbiturate withdrawal include potential heart failure, seizures, suicidal thoughts, and sudden death. The best way to safely withdraw from barbiturates and avoid severe withdrawal symptoms during this process is to undergo medical detoxification (detox).
Medical detox is offered in inpatient rehabilitation settings for people who require medical assistance to withdraw from drugs or alcohol.
Within this setting, patients can be monitored for health complications and receive treatment for uncomfortable symptoms.
Due to the dangers of returning to barbiturates following detox, it is highly recommended that any person who has been abusing barbiturates seek additional treatment within a drug rehab program.
Treatment For Barbiturate Abuse And Addiction
Struggling with an addiction to barbiturates, or an issue of drug misuse, can become an all-consuming problem affecting all areas of a person’s life. Overcoming barbiturate abuse is not something that most people can or should face alone.
The safest and most effective way to stop using barbiturates is to seek professional treatment through an alcohol and drug rehab center.
At Vertava Health of Massachusetts, our treatment center offers a compassionate approach to barbiturate treatment that is capable of meeting each person where they are in their recovery journey.
Treatment at Vertava Health of Massachusetts recognizes the importance of providing a strong support system for people overcoming addiction, which is why we first recommend entering our inpatient program.
This can provide the necessary structure most people need while healing in the early stages of recovery. Our inpatient program includes traditional and holistic treatments.
To learn more about barbiturate abuse and addiction treatment at Vertava Health of Massachusetts, contact one of our helpful treatment specialists today.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Barbiturate intoxication and overdose, Phenobarbital
- National Center for Biotechnology Information — Barbiturate Toxicity