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Barbiturate Addiction

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 the side effects of illegal drugs. While barbiturates are not prescribed today as much as they once were, they are still around and being misused and abused. Here, we take a look at barbiturates, including why they are dangerous, and how to address barbiturate addiction.


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. During the 20th century, more than 2,500 barbiturates were made, but only 50 came onto the market. 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.

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 and 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.

Examples of barbiturates include:

  • Amobarbital (Amytal)
  • Butisol (Butabarbital sodium)
  • Mephobarbital (Mebaral)
  • Secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • Phenobarbital (Luminal)
  • Butalbital (Fiorinal, Fioricet)


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.

Woman taking a barbiturates pill

Street names for barbiturates depend on the particular drug being used. They are generally referred to as downers, barbs, dolls, Christmas trees, pinks, reds and blues, goof balls, yellow jackets, or sleepers.


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 the “come down” from those drugs. Euphoria,  relaxation, pleasurable feelings, and a sense of well-being are experienced when barbiturates are used in a manner not intended.

Excessive barbiturate abuse 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 safe to use are prescribed instead.


Habitual use of barbiturates can bring on mental and physical changes. According to the Global Information Network About Drugs, a large barbiturate dose can make people appear high-spirited, talkative, and uninhibited in addition to their feelings of euphoria.  Longtime barbiturate users who withdraw from using the medications must do so gradually. Quitting the drugs 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, convulsions, fever, vomiting, and suicidal thoughts.

Signs and symptoms of barbiturate intoxication or addiction include:

  • 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

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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 before treatment is started.

An evaluation can help determine how far along or severe barbiturate addiction is and whether a mental health disorder is present, such as depression, anxiety, Post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder, among others. If one is present along with substance addiction, then the client has co-occurring disorders (also known as dual diagnosis). A treatment program that addresses both conditions at the same time is highly recommended for dually diagnosed individuals to give them the best chance at recovery.

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 process 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 encouraged to enter a treatment program in which they can address their addiction, particularly from the physical and psychological perspectives. These treatment programs can be tailored to an individual’s needs and preferences.

Inpatient or residential 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. Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help recovering barbiturate users recognize thinking patterns that are inaccurate, negative, or distorted thinking and teaches them coping skills and strategies to correct those patterns.

People in a therapy session discussing addiction

These tools help them identify and process their thoughts and emotions and respond to challenges in effective ways that support them during recovery. Treatment also can incorporate 12-step fellowship programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, motivational therapy, trauma therapy, SMART Recovery, holistic therapies such as yoga and acupuncture, and individual counseling and group counseling sessions.

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.


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 due to 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 with other drugs like alcohol or benzodiazepines at the same time.


According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), some users also mix barbiturates and opiates such as heroin or OxyContin. Barbiturate abuse also occurs when people mix the depressant medications with alcohol, another depressant, which only intensifies the effects of each substance, which are similar in nature.

Respiratory failure, hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature), lethargy, low blood pressure, and loss of coordination are all dangerous effects of mixing barbiturates with alcohol. The presence of any of these symptoms, which should be considered serious side effects and complications, means brain activity has decreased. If the brain is completely overwhelmed because two different depressants are in the body, then it could stop working completely.

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, and are most likely part of active barbiturate addiction.

NLM Lists the Following Complications of an Overdose:

  • Miscarriage in pregnant women or damage to the developing baby in the womb
  • Pneumonia from depressed gag reflex and aspiration (fluid or food down the bronchial tubes into the lungs)
  • Head injury and concussion from falls when intoxicated
  • Neck and spinal injury and paralysis from falls when intoxicated
  • Severe muscle damage from lying on a hard surface while unconscious, which may lead to permanent kidney injury

Barbiturate Statistics

  • About 1 in 10 people who overdose on barbiturates or a mixture that contains barbiturates will die, according the US National Library of Medicine.
  • Doctors prescribe barbiturates 19 millions times each year.
  • It is estimated that 1 in 3 American households has at least one bottle of barbiturates in their medicine cabinet at any given time.

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