Barbiturates, also known as barbituric acid derivatives, are prescription medications that are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. There are different varieties, such as sedative hypnotics, but all barbituric acid derivatives have sedative effects, causing feelings of relaxation and sleepiness that are similar to alcohol intoxication. The most commonly known barbiturates are phenobarbital, Amytal, and Seconal.

However, these drugs are dangerous and have a high risk for tolerance, dependence, and overdose. While low doses may make users feel drowsy and seem intoxicated, the difference between a safe dose and a fatal one is very small. Continue reading to learn about signs of addiction, long-term effects, and treatment options.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are medications that produce a wide spectrum of depressive effects on the central nervous system. They are most commonly prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, and to prevent seizures, but they can be easily misused by taking more than indicated by a doctor.

Barbituric acid derivatives work by enhancing the activity of GABA receptors in the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces the activity of nerve cells, leading to a decrease in brain activity. However, misusing barbiturates, such as phenobarbital, can crucially affect and flood GABA receptors, which causes tolerance and dependence, particularly with short-acting barbituric acid derivatives.

Which Barbiturates Are Most Commonly Abused?

The most commonly known and abused barbiturates are:

  • Amobarbital (amytal sodium)
  • Butobarbital (butisol sodium)
  • Pentobarbital (nembutal sodium
  • Luminal/phenobarbital (phenobarbital sodium)
  • Seconal (secobarbital sodium)

What Are Common Street Names for Barbiturates?

Some popular names for barbiturates include:

  • Barbs
  • Block busters
  • Christmas trees
  • Goof balls
  • Pinks
  • Red devils
  • Reds & blues
  • Yellow jackets

What Do Barbiturates Look Like?

Barbiturates are available in a variety of multicolored pills and tablets and in liquid form. Short-acting barbs, such as Amytal, are blue, while Seconal is bright red (thus, the street name of “reds & blues”). Different colors mean varied types of drugs with myriad side effects and mechanisms of action. Long-acting barbiturates, such as phenobarbital, are not as popular because they do not provide instant euphoria; however, the effects of phenobarbital can last well beyond 12 hours, as opposed to the short-acting Amytal.

These drugs are usually available in pill form and are taken by mouth or are misused by crushing and snorting them. Alternatively, barbiturates can be injected and are available in liquid form, however, this is rare.

What Are the Short-Term Effects of Barbiturates?

Barbituric acid derivatives reduce anxiety and inhibitions and counteract some of the undesirable side effects of illicit drugs. Some individuals are drawn to them because they induce mild euphoria and sleepiness. They may have a relaxing effect in the short term but are dangerous in higher doses. Short-time side effects include

  • Relaxation and euphoria
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired judgment
  • Confusion
  • Loss of coordination

When taken orally, the effects of barbiturates generally begin within 30 minutes and last from 4 to 16 hours, depending on the type of drug. The length of their effects can vary depending on the class of drug and the tolerance of the individual using it.

Why Are Barbiturates Harmful?

When used in larger quantities, these drugs can be life-threatening or can harm the body in other ways, such as elevated blood pressure. Misuse can lead to short-temperedness, memory loss, lack of coordination, impaired decision-making abilities, and even suicidal thoughts. When mixed with other depressants such as alcohol, barbiturate use can be deadly. They pose a greater threat to the body and the mind when used over longer stretches of time.

These drugs are also dangerous because the amount required to achieve their effects varies greatly from person to person. The same dosage that can give one individual feelings of sleepiness and relaxation can be toxic to someone else.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Barbiturate Abuse?

Repeated misuse of these drugs can lead to addiction and various health problems, including

  • Delirium
  • Anxiety
  • Slowed reflexes
  • CNS damage
  • Liver damage
  • Chronic sleep problems

Users who abuse barbiturates frequently are likely to develop a tolerance to the drug. This means they will require larger doses to achieve the same effect. The risk of dependence is increased for users who consume them regularly.

What Are the Signs of Barbiturate Addiction?

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of barbiturate abuse can help identify individuals who may be struggling with addiction. Some common signs include:

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Sluggishness
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor concentration
  • Decreased motor control
  • Behaving recklessly

Physical Signs

  • Dizziness
  • Slow breathing
  • Inability to urinate
  • Respiratory depression
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Kidney dysfunction

What Does a Barbiturate Overdose Look Like?

Taking an excessive number of pills or combining them with alcohol or other drugs can lead to an overdose. Alcohol and opioids are particularly dangerous substances to mix with barbiturates. Due to the lack of coordination experienced during an overdose, head injuries are particularly common. Symptoms of an overdose include

  • Memory loss
  • Low heart rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Coordination issues
  • Irritability
  • Clouded thinking
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Poor judgment

Because barbiturates act as CNS depressants, they can suppress breathing and gag reflexes, which can lead to life-threatening health complications. These can include aspiration of food or other particles into the lungs, pneumonia, and severe muscle damage. Coma and death are also possible. Individuals who overdose require immediate medical attention.

How Is Barbiturate Addiction Treated?

Because barbituric acid derivatives  are physically addictive, individuals must go through a medically-monitored detox before they can truly address the psychological aspect of their addiction. When the body rids itself of toxins, dangerous withdrawal symptoms can occur. Unmanaged symptoms can lead to complications such as hyperthermia (high body temperature) and circulatory failure, which can be deadly. Other withdrawal symptoms include

  • Severe anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Delirium or hallucinations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Tremors and seizures
  • Anxiety and violent behavior

Treating barbiturate addiction often requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction. Some of the common treatment options include

  • Detoxification: The first step in treatment is often detox, which involves safely tapering off the drug under medical supervision to manage withdrawal symptoms.
  • Residential treatment. Inpatient residential treatment is the next step after detox, and it prepares you for a life free from drugs and alcohol. Some individuals may want to opt for outpatient or intensive outpatient treatment (IOP).
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): Medications such as benzodiazepines or anticonvulsants may be used to help manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings during detox.
  • Therapy: Various forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and individual or group counseling, can help individuals address the underlying causes of addiction and develop coping strategies.

Support groups: Participating in support groups, such as 12-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous, can provide individuals with a supportive community and ongoing guidance in their recovery journey.

Aftercare and follow-up are also crucial. Supplementing traditional addiction treatment offerings with wellness practices can help individuals better understand addiction and relearn healthy behaviors necessary for long-term, sustainable recovery.

Those recovering from barbiturate addiction can benefit from different therapeutic activities. Users who became dependent on the drug as a cure for their insomnia may find value in sleep education, which can help them learn proper sleep habits.

Individuals who took barbiturates to offset stress can replace their use with Writers for Recovery, which encourages them to identify triggers and address the root of their anxiety.

Another alternative to calm a hyperactive mind is meditation, which improves focus and guides individuals into finding mental and emotional balance.

Learn about additional holistic therapies by visiting our Wellness page.

One out of ten barbiturate-related overdoses result in death. Don’t take a chance on your life. If you or a loved one is struggling with prescription drugs, reach out for help. Our compassionate team of experts is here to help.

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