Barbiturates are a type of drug known as depressants, and can be highly addictive due to their ability to produce a feeling of euphoria or relaxation. Sometimes barbiturates are classified as sedative-hypnotics or tranquilizers, and can be used by veterinarians to put animals to sleep. Barbiturates, along with other types of depressants, can be prescribed to treat sleep issues, seizures, and anxiety.
Barbiturates were extremely popular in the 1960s and 1970s, but have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines in modern day medicine. However, barbiturates are still prescribed in the medical community, and are still abused recreationally. Barbiturates can be dangerous if abused, and the most at-risk demographic for barbiturate addiction in older adults. Overuse of barbiturates can result in dangerous and life-threatening symptoms, including coma and death in extreme cases. Drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs while taking barbiturates can increase the risk of these dangerous side effects.
What Are Barbiturates?
Barbiturates work by depressing the central nervous system. By slowing nerve activity, the muscles relax, blood pressure drops, and both heart rate and breathing can slow. Barbiturates affect GABA, a neurotransmitter that nerves use to communicate. Barbiturates can come in a range of colorful pills or tablets, and are classified as Ultrashort, Short, Intermediate, and Long-acting.
Taken in somewhat low doses, barbiturates may cause a feeling similar to being drunk or intoxicated. A barbiturate overdose can occur when someone intentionally or accidentally takes more than the recommended dose of this medicine.
While barbiturates can be prescribed for seizures and headaches, they can also be used as an anesthetic, and to treat alcohol and benzodiazepine poisoning. Sometimes, people may use barbiturates to help negate the side effects of illicit drugs, such as stimulants.
Today, barbiturates are typically prescribed for several specific conditions only. These include severe insomnia, anesthesia induction, tension headaches (taken with acetaminophen and caffeine), and in the treatment of seizures that are not responding to other, less hazardous medications.
There are several types of barbiturates, and the main difference is how long they act for. Some of the barbiturates prescribed in the U.S. are:
- Amobarbital (Amytal)
- Butabarbital (Butisol)
- Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
- Secobarbital (Seconal)
- Belladonna and phenobarbital (Donnatal)
- Butalbital/acetaminophen/caffeine (Esgic, Fioricet)
- Butalbital/aspirin/caffeine (Fiorinal Ascomp, Fortabs)
People that are struggling with barbiturate addiction may prefer the short-acting Amytal and Seconal. Some of the street names for barbiturate medications can include:
- Double trouble
- Reds, red birds, red devils
- Yellows, yellow jackets
- Block busters
- Christmas trees
- Blue heavens
These medications can be in the form of tablets, capsules, oral liquid, used by injection, or taken rectally. Any of these medications can cause an overdose. A barbiturate overdose happens when someone ingests an amount of the drug that results in their breathing being slowed to the point of unconsciousness. Overdoses can be fatal.
Are Barbiturates Addictive?
Barbiturates are highly addictive, and have been largely replaced by benzodiazepines due to their dangerous chance of overdose (many people died in the 1970s as a result of barbiturate overdose). Since barbiturates are available in both pill and liquid form, they can be abused in several ways. The person abusing barbiturates may crush the tablet and snort the powder, or inject the liquid. When barbiturates are injected, they can take hold of the body’s central nervous system so quickly that it is unsafe for the body.
Sometimes barbiturates are used to treat the negative effects of illicit drugs. For example, if someone is “coming down” from an illicit high, such as stimulants, barbiturates can decrease anxiety and restore the person to a sense of calm. However, due to their powerful sedation properties, barbiturates are dangerous even when taken alone. If taken in combination with alcohol, opioids, or benzodiazepines, barbiturates can have a fatal outcome.
Signs & Symptoms of Barbiturate Abuse
Although barbiturates are not prescribed as commonly today, they can still be habit-forming. When someone abuses a barbiturate medication, it is typically to induce feelings of well-being and happiness, or to “get high.” When people abuse a depressant, it can be either to enhance the other drug’s effects, or to minimize its’ negative side effects. Taking barbiturates in combination with other prescription or illicit drugs can be extremely dangerous. Additionally, taking barbiturates while pregnant can result in babies who are born addicted and suffering withdrawal symptoms.
There are many signs to tell if someone is abusing barbiturates, including but not limited to the following:
- Ingesting larger doses than prescribed
- Euphoria, decreased anxiety
- Changes in coordination
- Impaired judgment
- Lack of inhibition
- Low blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
- Suicidal ideation
Some of the long-term effects of depressants on the body can include:
- Decreased attention span
- Lowered blood pressure
- Memory loss
- Poor coordination
- Slurred speech
- Sexual dysfunction
- Kidney damage
Someone suffering from barbiturate addiction may also show more generalized signs and symptoms of drug-seeking behaviors, such as preoccupation with getting drugs, compulsive substance use, asking for money, suspicious conduct, and relationship issues.
A person struggling with barbiturate abuse may also showcase additional addictive behaviors, such as continuing to use substances despite repeated personal or legal consequences, or possessing a disregard for using good judgment regarding use. While these behaviors can be frustrating and even alarming, it is important to understand that this person is likely battling a dangerous addiction, and could benefit from therapeutic treatment.
Dangers of Overdosing on Barbiturates
Although barbiturate use has significantly decreased in modern years, it remains an especially risky drug to abuse, due to its high chance of fatal overdose. The correct dose of a barbiturate is difficult to calculate, and if someone is using barbiturates illegally, recreationally, or concurrently with other substances, the risk of overdose can increase.
Warning signs of a barbiturate overdose can include:
- Slowed, shallow breathing
- Compromised judgment
- Speech issues
- Clammy skin
- Dilated pupils
- Weak and rapid pulse
The risk of a barbiturate overdose also increases when barbiturates are combined with certain medications, such as Atazanavir (Reyataz), Boceprevir (Victrelis), Lurasidone (Latuda), Ranolazine (Ranexa), Telaprevir (Incivek), Voriconazole (Vfend), and Ritonavir (Norvir).
Additionally, the concurrent use of barbiturates and other types of central nervous depressants should be used with extreme caution, as using these medications together can cause extreme sedation, coma, and death. Some of these medications can include:
If you or someone you are with experiences an overdose, it is a medical emergency. Call your local emergency number (911) or the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.
Barbiturate Dependence & Withdrawal
Barbiturate use can be a major addiction issue for many people. When someone is experiencing addiction to a drug, it means their body and mind are dependent on the substance. The person struggling with dependence on a substance is typically unable to control their use, and needs the drug to get through each day.
Oftentimes, those who become addicted begin their use under the prescribed supervision of a healthcare provider. However, repeated use of a drug over a period of time can lead to tolerance, which means a person needs higher and higher doses of the drug to elicit a similar response. A tolerance to barbiturates can develop in as short as two weeks. When someone using barbiturates becomes physically and/or psychologically dependent, and suddenly stop their use, they can begin to experience withdrawal symptoms such as:
- Stomach cramps
- Thoughts of suicide
Withdrawing from barbiturates is different than withdrawing from other drugs, and should be treated with extreme caution. Stopping barbiturate use suddenly (going “cold turkey”) can cause seizures, heart failure, and death. Because withdrawal from barbiturates is so dangerous, withdrawal and detox should be supervised in a medical setting.
Treatment For Barbiturate Addiction
Treatment begins by realizing that there is a problem. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of barbiturate addiction in a loved one can feel both devastating and overwhelming. Fortunately, there are many helpful treatment therapies to help those who may be struggling with an addiction to barbiturates. There are also many options for families who are in need of support.
Because barbiturate addiction can affect people physically, emotionally, mentally, and behaviorally, it’s important to note the holistic approaches to treatment that can assist in their recovery. Some of these approaches may include the following options, available in a customizable format:
- Medically-supervised detox program
- Individual therapies (talk therapy)
- Group therapies
- 12-Step treatment
- Family support
- Mindfulness therapy
- Faith-based therapies
- Wilderness or adventure therapies
- Development of coping mechanisms in order to avoid relapse
- Aftercare planning, which provides the person with the best chances for successful, long-term health and recovery
Some people may feel that they simply need a place to detox safely, and do not want or need the full range of treatment. It’s important to understand that clearing the system of drugs is just the first step to achieving a successful, long-term recovery. While detoxification allows your body to rid itself of the harmful toxins from drug use, the mind and body will likely need additional tools in order to create a successful recovery.
Although barbiturate addiction can be dangerous, it can be addressed through the safe and effective treatments discussed above. If you or someone you love is struggling with abusing barbiturates, we encourage you to reach out for support. We are here to assist you and your loved one in understanding the options you have on the path to recovery.