A sedative is a term used to describe prescription drugs that act as central nervous system (CNS) depressants. CNS depressants, or sedatives, also called tranquilizers or sedative-hypnotics, slow down activity in the nervous system and brain.
What Are Sedatives?
Sedatives are typically prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders because they increase the activity of a natural chemical in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Increased GABA in the brain slows down general brain activity, causing a person to feel calm or drowsy.
While different sedatives act on the brain in different ways, they all increase GABA and cause feelings of calm, relaxation, and sleepiness. If a person takes sedatives as directed by a doctor or physician, the drugs will likely be effective for treating disorders like insomnia, seizures, and panic attacks.However, people may take sedatives for nonmedical reasons because of the euphoric (feel-good) effects the drugs produce.
Sedatives generally come in pill or tablet form, and people suffering from sedative addiction may use someone else’s medication, take larger doses than directed, or mix them with other drugs to enhance or counteract, the drug’s intoxicating effects.
Many sedatives are considered controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) because of their potential for abuse. Once a person begins abusing a sedative, they’ll likely develop a physical and psychological dependence to the drug, which may lead to addiction.
The following list includes some of the most abused sedative medications.
Commonly Abused Sedatives
- Ambien (zolpidem)
- Amytal (amobarbital)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Fiorinal/Fioricet (butalbital)
- Halcion (triazolam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
- Luminal (phenobarbital)
- Lunesta (eszopiclone)
- Nembutal (pentobarbital)
- Rohypnol (flunitrazepam)
- Seconal (secobarbital)
- Sonata (zaleplon)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Xanax (alprazolam)
All these prescription drugs are broken down into three primary categories: benzodiazepines, z-drugs (sleeping medications), and barbiturates.
Benzodiazepines include commonly abused sedatives like Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin. These are generally prescribed to treat severe stress reactions, panic attacks, convulsions, and sleep disorders.
Benzodiazepines are the most commonly prescribed sedatives on the market. They affect the brain in ways similar to alcohol, and the intoxicating effects can lead to abuse.
Common street names for benzodiazepines include:
- sleeping pills
- valley girls
Teenagers and young people are likely at risk of abusing benzodiazepines and may crush the pill and snort it for a quicker high. The abuse of benzodiazepines is also common among people who use cocaine and heroin.
Abusing benzodiazepines is dangerous and may cause an overdose. The number of benzodiazepine-related fatal overdoses has risen every year for the last 15 years. In 2015, nearly 9,000 people died of benzodiazepine overdose.
Another type of sedatives are z-drugs, or prescription sleeping medications.
Z-Drugs (Sleeping Medication)
Sleeping medications, also known as z-drugs, are used to treat insomnia or other sleep disorders. There are three government approved sedatives for the treatment of insomnia, Ambien (zolpidem), Sonata (zaleplon), and Lunesta (eszopiclone).
Z-drugs work in similar ways to benzodiazepines, but the effects have a shorter duration and they are less likely to affect a person the day after. However, there are some adverse effects of abusing z-drugs, including hallucinations, psychosis (losing touch with reality), and complex behaviors.
Because of these effects, z-drugs come with warnings and are prescribed with caution. Furthermore, z-drugs can be habit-forming, especially when used for nonmedical reasons or not as directed, and may lead to abuse and addiction.
Addiction to z-drugs is likely when a person takes the medication during the day and doesn’t go to sleep. If awake and on z-drugs, a person may experience drowsiness, slow reaction time, coordination problems, and a decrease in mental awareness.
Common street names for z-drugs include:
- mexican valium
- zombie pills
As a sedative, z-drugs are likely to produce euphoric effects of calm and relaxation if not taken before sleep. Because of the potential for abuse, Z-drugs should always be taken as directed.
The third category of sedatives is a class of drugs called barbiturates.
Barbiturates are powerful sedatives usually prescribed for seizure disorders or extreme pain syndromes. They produce feelings of calm and sleepiness, and the effects may cause a person to feel drunk or intoxicated.
Barbiturates include prescription drugs like Amytal (amobarbital), Seconal (secobarbital), Nembutal (pentobarbital), Luminal (phenobarbital), and Fiorinal/Fioricet (butalbital).
These sedatives usually come in tablet form and are abused by swallowing the pill or dissolving it in liquid and then injecting it. People may use barbiturates the counteract the effects of stimulant drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine.
Common street names for barbiturates include:
- block busters
- christmas trees
- goof balls
- red birds
- yellow jackets
When abused, tolerance of barbiturates is likely. Tolerance occurs when a person needs to take more a drug to achieve the desired high. Abusing barbiturates is extremely dangerous and can lead to overdose and death.
Due to the intoxicating effects of the three primary categories of sedative prescription drugs, a person is likely to show signs and symptoms of sedative abuse and addiction.
Signs And Symptoms of Sedative Addiction
Because sedatives produce feelings of calm and relaxation, a person addicted to sedatives may appear drowsy, tired, and lethargic.
When a person is addicted to sedatives, they will likely show signs of typical drug-seeking behavior. This behavior includes compulsively using sedatives even when it causes harm to themselves or others. Using sedatives will likely be their top priority, and they may neglect personal hygiene and other responsibilities at home, work, or school.
The effects of sedative intoxication are similar to the effects of alcohol intoxication. A person on sedatives may show the following signs of intoxication:
- abrupt mood changes
- impaired judgment
- inappropriate or unruly behavior
- lack of attention
- lack of inhibition (disregard for social boundaries)
Abusing sedatives may also increase side effects associated with each drug. Sedative side effects may include:
- lack of concentration
- loss of memory
- lowered blood pressure
- movement problems
- slowed breathing
- slurred speech
The more sedatives a person uses, the more impaired a person will be. The person may be severely uncoordinated, and this can affect daily tasks like driving. Long-term use of sedatives may also increase depression and anxiety.
Abusing sedatives over long periods of time is likely to cause both psychological and physical damage. There are many dangers inherent to sedative abuse and addiction.
The Dangers Of Sedative Abuse
Abusing sedatives may cause severe memory problems that can result in “blackout,” or where a person experiences total amnesia (no recollection or an event or time). Blackout can be dangerous because a person may in engage in risky behaviors like unprotected sex, driving, or other unlawful activities.
Mixing sedatives with other CNS depressants, like alcohol, is also extremely dangerous. Mixing depressants are likely to slow down heart and breathing rates, which may result in death.
Overdose from sedatives is a major risk for those suffering from abuse and addiction. Overdose occurs when a person takes too many sedatives, either by accident or on purpose. Severe overdose may lead to stupor, or a life-threatening state of unconsciousness, which can result in dangerous respiratory depression (slowed breathing), or brain injury.
Other symptoms of overdose include:
- changes in alertness
- difficulty thinking
- lack of coordination
- memory loss
- poor judgment
- slow breathing
- slurred speech
Overdose may lead to death and should be treated as a medical emergency. If a person shows any overdose symptoms, 9-1-1 should be contacted immediately.
A recent study showed benzodiazepines, the most commonly prescribed sedative, accounted for almost 30% of all overdose fatalities. Over ¾ of those deaths were unintentional, meaning most people did not account for dangers of use.
While there are several dangers of sedative abuse, stopping use can be difficult due to painful and debilitating symptoms of withdrawal.
Sedative Withdrawal And Detox
The abuse of sedatives is likely to lead to physical and psychological dependence. Dependence means a person’s brain and body have become used to the effects of the drug, and when they stop using it, their body goes through a period of sickness and discomfort called withdrawal.
According to scientists and researchers, sedative withdrawal is no different from alcohol withdrawal.
Symptoms of sedative withdrawal are likely to include:
- hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there)
- increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
- tremors (involuntary movement)
Symptoms of withdrawal may occur within 4-8 hours after last use. The first symptoms to occur are likely increases in body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate, followed by tremors and sweating.
Withdrawal symptoms may last for up to 10 days and be extremely uncomfortable. During this time, a person may experience intense drug cravings, delirium, and a lost sense of reality (psychosis).
People taking sedatives for long periods of time, in large amounts, are older in age, and have other mental health conditions are at higher risk of experiencing severe withdrawal. Due to the severity of symptoms, a person may need a medically supervised detoxification.
Detoxification, or detox, is the process by which the body rids itself of harmful toxins. A medically supervised detox occurs in a hospital or inpatient treatment center and allows staff to closely monitor a patient’s progress, administer medications when necessary, and provide support and comfort during the worst of symptoms.
Getting through sedative withdrawal can be difficult for a person to do on their own, making a medically supervised detox an essential first step of treatment. Detox is not a cure for sedative addiction, and other treatment options should follow to allow the best chances for recovery.
Treatment Options For Sedative Addiction
Once a person is aware they have a substance use disorder (SUD) of sedative medication, long-term treatment may be necessary. Most SUDs are treated with a combination of medication and behavioral therapy. Currently, there are no government-approved medications for treating sedative addiction. However, a process called tapering is effective for benzodiazepine and other sedative addictions.
Tapering is a process where a sedative is administered to the person to avoid withdrawal symptoms and lessen dependence. The sedative is then gradually reduced in dosage over a period of time or tapered. This must occur in a hospital or inpatient treatment center.
Staying at an inpatient treatment center can be effective for people with severe sedative addiction. Inpatient treatment centers will likely have access to sedatives and other medications, a supportive environment to provide around the clock, 24-hour care, and a host of behavioral therapies.
Behavioral therapy is essential to recovery and aims to change a person’s attitudes towards drugs. Therapy may consist of one on one sessions, group or peer support, or more intensive therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
Behavioral therapy is likely to help a person identify life-stressors and situations that could lead to further drug use, teaching them the skills and tools needed to cope and remain drug-free after treatment.
Contact us today for more information on sedative abuse and addiction.
TEENS: National Institute on Drug Abuse—Facts on CNS Depressants
U.S. National Library of Medicine—Sedative Misuse and Abuse
National Institute on Drug Abuse—Commonly Abused Drug Charts – CNS Depressants
Drug Enforcement Administration—Drug Fact Sheet: Benzodiazepines
Drug Enforcement Administration—Drug Fact Sheet: Barbiturates
MedlinePlus—Barbiturate intoxication and overdose