Barbiturates are synthetic central nervous system (CNS) depressants used as sedatives and to treat anxiety and seizures. They range in action from inducing mild sedation to general anesthesia and may result in coma.
Barbiturates are pharmaceutical drugs that can be short-acting, intermediate-acting, or long-acting. Common barbiturates include phenobarbital (Luminal), pentobarbital (Nembutal), secobarbital (Seconal), and amobarbital (Amytal).
Although they are most commonly prescribed for sleep difficulties, these drugs are also regularly misused. In fact, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that as many as 330,000 people were currently using a sedative drug recreationally in the month before a 2014 survey.
Barbiturates can be misused by taking pills without a prescription or medical need or by tampering with the form of the medication, such as crushing it and diluting it in water for injection. These depressants are sometimes called “downers” and are often misused for recreational purposes to induce pleasant sensations of relaxation and feelings of euphoria, not unlike alcohol intoxication. They are also used to offset “uppers”—stimulant drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine.
Barbiturates can remain in a person’s system for 4-16 hours, depending on the length of action of the drug used. They are very easy to overdose on and are also considered to be highly addictive, as a person can rapidly develop tolerance and become physiologically dependent on them. As such, barbiturate misuse is quite risky, both in the short-term and long run.
Risks of Barbiturate Abuse
The use of barbiturates can prove fatal even in small doses. Due to the long-acting properties of some barbiturates, these drugs can stay in a person’s system for an extended period, and if a person takes more during this time, it may then lead to a toxic accumulation.
Also, the more barbiturates the person uses, the more tolerant of their mind-altering effects he or she becomes. The same is not true of an individual’s tolerance to the drugs’ life-threatening effects, however, and frequent, repeated use of these drugs skyrockets the risk for a lethal overdose.
The Global Information Network About Drugs (GINAD) reports that an estimated 3,000 people die from an overdose related to barbiturates in the U.S. each year. Furthermore, approximately 60% of those overdoses are accidental, while the other 40% are reported as attempted suicides.
Signs of a barbiturate overdose include the following:
- Clammy skin
- Dilated pupils
- Weak pulse
- Loss of consciousness
- Respiratory depression
Since barbiturates are CNS depressants, just like alcohol, they can reduce a person’s inhibitions, promote sociability and increase the risk of engaging in potentially impulsive and dangerous behavior.
Barbiturate Side Effects
Other side effects of barbiturate intoxication include the following:
- Slurred speech
- Impaired coordination
- Slow or unsteady movement
- Mental fogginess
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor judgment
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Aggressive behavior
Mixing these drugs with other substances, especially other CNS depressants such as alcohol, opioids, or benzodiazepines, increases all risk factors. Doing so can diminish respiration and cardiovascular functions to perilously low levels, which can be life-threatening.
Those who abuse barbiturates via injection may also be at an increased risk of contracting infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, as the result of sharing unclean needles. The risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease due to impaired judgment and unsafe sexual behavior is also increased by excessive barbiturate use.
Effects of Long-Term Barbiturate Use
According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), in 2011, nearly 20,000 people in the U.S. received care in an emergency room for an adverse reaction to barbiturate abuse. Using these drugs regularly can result in breathing problems and lead to bronchitis and pneumonia.
Other effects caused by the long-term use of barbiturates include the following:
- Memory impairments
- Reduced attention span
- Impaired reflexes
- Bone aches and pain
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle weakness
- Liver damage
- Cardiovascular damage
The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that the long-term abuse of these drugs can result in barbiturate-induced residual psychotic disorder, a form of dementia characterized by memory, learning, language, judgment, calculation, and comprehension problems. Also, other higher cortical and cognitive functional deficits may become persistent and irreversible.
Barbiturate Addiction and Dependence
Among the most pronounced side effects from regular and continued abuse of barbiturates is the development of tolerance and physiological dependence. Tolerance occurs as the body grows accustomed to exposure to these drugs, and the person will then be forced to use higher or more frequent doses to keep experiencing the desired effects.
Furthermore, the fact that tolerance to depressant effects does not grow at the same rate as psychoactive effects can be particularly concerning because people may consume higher doses in an attempt to feel better and accidentally overdose as a result.
When a person takes a barbiturate drug, the action of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain is increased. GABA works to relieve anxiety by diminishing physical and emotional reactions to stress. Physiological dependence occurs when the body adapts to the presence of barbiturates such that it can no longer function normally without them.
Unpleasant withdrawal symptoms accompany dependence on barbiturates as the drug is eliminated from the body. Because barbiturates hinder functions of the CNS and interfere with brain chemistry, when these drugs are abruptly absent after dependence has developed, the body can experience a rebound. These resulting effects referred to as withdrawal symptoms.
Complications of barbiturate withdrawal can be life-threatening, and for this reason, these drugs should never be stopped suddenly or “cold turkey.”
Barbiturate withdrawal symptoms may include the following:
- Extreme confusion
- Irregular heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Abdominal cramps
- Muscle weakness
- Drug cravings
Hallucinations and delusions are also a possible result of barbiturate withdrawal. This withdrawal syndrome is comparable to that of alcohol-induced delirium tremens (DTs) and can onset as long as a week after discontinuing use and result in death. Barbiturate withdrawal should be closely supervised and treated by highly trained medical or addiction professionals in a clinical detox facility.
Drug dependence and withdrawal symptoms are not synonymous with addiction, although a person who is addicted is almost always dependent. A person who is dependent on barbiturates does not necessarily suffer from addiction, however.
Drug dependence is a physiological manifestation, while addiction also includes a set of compulsive drug-seeking behaviors and uncontrollable drug-taking despite the incurrence of adverse consequences. People battling addiction may spend a considerable amount of time using drugs, figuring out how to obtain them, and then recovering from their use.
Treatment for Barbiturate Addiction
Addiction is now commonly accepted as a chronic brain disease that can result in many physical, emotional, behavioral, interpersonal, social, financial, and legal consequences. Barbiturate addiction can be effectively managed, however, through participation in an integrated treatment program at a specialized facility, such as Midwood Addiction Treatment.
Our center offers evidence-based services facilitated by highly-skilled, compassionate addiction professionals who deliver therapies to clients with care and expertise. We provide clients with the tools and support they need to achieve sobriety and enjoy long-lasting happiness and wellness.
No matter what you have done or suffered through, you deserve so much better. Contact us today to find out how we can help you begin your recovery journey. We are dedicated to helping people pull themselves free from the grips of addiction so they can reclaim healthy, productive, and satisfying lives!