Barbiturates are drugs that can be used for a wide range of reasons. These drugs are known to depress the central nervous system and are therefore utilized for surgery as well as for sedation or as anticonvulsants. They can be used to treat insomnia, anxiety, or seizure activity, for euthanasia purposes or during executions. They also have been used recreationally and are highly addictive.

Barbiturates are a group of drugs that have calming effects on the body. They can produce effects similar to those of alcohol, ranging from mild relaxation to an inability to feel pain and loss of consciousness. 

At Harmony Ridge, we understand that barbiturates addiction treatment is a complex condition that must be treated carefully. We’ll take you through several steps to ensure that you achieve a complete recovery from your substance abuse. Today we’re going to take a look at what you need to know about barbiturates.

What Is A Barbiturate?

When did barbiturates become a problem?

These drugs were first developed in the late 19th century. Use of barbiturates as a recreational drug then became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to abuse in some cases. The first barbiturates were made in the 1860s by the Bayer laboratories in Germany. Barbiturates increase the activity of a chemical in the brain that helps transmit signals. This chemical is known as gamma amino butyric acid (GABA).

A class of drugs known as benzodiazepines has largely replaced barbiturates for both medical and recreational use, although benzodiazepines also carry a high risk of physical dependence and other adverse effects. Examples include Valium and Ativan.

Why are barbiturates prescribed? 

Barbiturates (mainly phenobarbital) are occasionally used by doctors to treat the following conditions:

  • seizure disorder (epilepsy)
  • increased pressure in the skull
  • severe trauma to the skull
  • some types of convulsions

Barbiturates can also be used as a form of anesthetic.

Off-label uses include treatment for:

  • migraines
  • alcohol and benzodiazepine poisoning and withdrawal
  • jaundice
  • Trauma

What are examples of barbiturates?

Barbiturates belong in a class of drugs called Central Nervous System Depressants and are typically prescribed to treat people with insomnia or symptoms of anxiety.

When looking for signs of barbiturate abuse, it may be helpful to know which barbiturates are on the market. Barbiturates are classified in four groups: ultra short acting, short acting, intermediate acting, and long acting. Ultra short acting are typically used in anesthesia, injected intravenously, and produce anesthetic results in one minute or less. Short acting to intermediate acting achieves results in 15 to 40 minutes. Long acting barbiturates take effect in about an hour, and last about 12 hours.

Barbiturates are available under the following different brand names: amobarbital (Amytal), secobarbital (Seconal), butabarbital (Butisol), pentobarbital (Nembutal), belladonna and phenobarbital (Donnatal), butalbital/acetaminophen/caffeine (Esgic, Fioricet), and butalbital/aspirin/caffeine (Fiorinal Ascomp, Fortabs).

Commonly known as “downers,” street names for Barbiturates include:

  • Barbs
  • Red
  • Red birds
  • Yellow jacket
  • Pinks
  • Tooies
  • Christmas trees
  • Phennies
  • Double trouble
  • Blues
  • Blockbuster
  • Sleepers
  • Gorilla pills
  • Goof balls

What is Phenobarbital? 

This is used to control seizures, relieve anxiety, and is also used to prevent withdrawal symptoms in people who are dependent on another barbiturate medication and are going to stop taking the medication. It works by slowing activity in the brain. This drug is considered to be a high addiction risk for youth and young adults, and use should be monitored closely if it is prescribed to treat epilepsy or anxiety in these populations in particular.

Are barbiturates addictive? 

As with many drugs, barbiturate users can develop a tolerance for the drugs, meaning that they require increased dosages to achieve the same effect. The problem with barbiturate tolerance is that is very little difference between a safe dosage and one that is potentially fatal.

Stopping them (withdrawal) can be life-threatening. Tolerance to the mood-altering effects of barbiturates develops rapidly with repeated use. But, tolerance to the lethal effects develops more slowly, and the risk of severe poisoning increases with continued use.

Withdrawal from barbiturate dependence is itself dangerous and potentially life-threatening. Depending on a variety of factors including the length of use and the amount of the drug used, withdrawal symptoms can range from restlessness and anxiety to convulsions and death.

Because of the dangers and medical complications of barbiturate withdrawal, detoxification should be done under medical supervision, often in an inpatient setting.

Side effects of barbiturates

Barbiturates have been associated with many, potentially serious, side effects. Some of the more common side effects include:

  • confusion
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • a headache
  • irritability
  • low blood pressure
  • nausea and vomiting
  • Vertigo.

Barbiturates are extremely dangerous in overdose. Symptoms may include:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • impaired judgment
  • incoordination
  • sluggishness
  • speech disturbances
  • staggering
  • unusually slow and shallow breathing
  • coma and death

Barbiturates have a very narrow therapeutic index, meaning small differences in dose can result in big differences in the effects of the drug and patients can easily develop side effects. Combining barbiturates with other drugs such as opioids, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, or over-the-counter (OTC) medications with antihistamines could be fatal.

Why Are Barbiturates Addictive?

The calming effects of barbiturates and other sedatives can cause users to develop a dependence on them. This means that they’ll need higher and more frequent doses to achieve a similar effect over time. Once you have a tolerance to barbiturates, you’re in danger of forming an addiction to them. Soon you’ll need them just to get out of bed in the morning. Many celebrities suffered from barbiturates addiction or died from a barbiturate overdose in the 1960s and 1970s. These include Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, and Edie Sedgewick. 

Responding to a barbiturate overdose

Most overdoses of this type of medicine involve a mixture of drugs, usually alcohol and barbiturates, or barbiturates and opiates such as heroin, oxycodone, or fentanyl. Some users take a combination of all these drugs. Those who use such combinations tend to be:

  • New users who do not know these combinations can lead to coma or death
  • Experienced users who use them on purpose to alter their consciousness

In the event of a suspected barbiturate or polydrug overdose, call 911 immediately, especially in the event of any breathing problems. The presence of medical professionals on the scene can improve the chances of surviving the overdose, which can be deadly.

Knowing whether or not an individual mixed a barbiturate with an opioid can be helpful for medical professionals to know when they arrive on the scene, as naloxone may be a viable immediate treatment.10  Naloxone is a drug that can help the person regain consciousness and reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, although naloxone cannot reverse a barbiturate-induced coma.

Benzodiazepines: A better alternative?

As mentioned above, barbiturates are being used far less than they were originally, partly because they were replaced by the drug benzodiazepine class. At first, this class of drugs was considered to be a much lower abuse risk, and therefore was offered as a safer alternative to barbiturates. In many cases, when used properly, they are. As explained in the Medical Pharmacology, benzos are much easier to dose in safe amounts.

However, subsequent experience and research, such as this article from American Family Physician, demonstrates that chronic abuse of these drugs – including simply using them for too long – can lead to addiction. And, similar to barbiturates, the detox process from benzos can lead to similarly dangerous seizures and other withdrawal symptoms. As a result, benzo use must also be monitored and undertaken with the awareness that these drugs are highly addictive.

Barbiturate Detox with Harmony Ridge Recovery Center

If you know someone who needs help for barbiturate abuse and addiction, do not despair. Treatment is not impossible—it’s actually quite possible when you find the right help. Inpatient rehab centers offer a quality of care you won’t find elsewhere.

Going to a rehab center difference is a comprehensive treatment plan for all addicted individuals. This means participants get help with treating any and all disorders (dual diagnosis). Healing at our rehab center allows you to get away from the triggers of your usual environment. 

Harmony Ridge Recovery Center is nestled in the Mid-Ohio Valley surrounded by 50 acres of scenic tranquility, lakes and forestry. Located inside the beautiful and serene Mountwood Park, 12 miles east of Parkersburg, WV, our campus provides the perfect environment for a successful journey to recovery. Learn more about our campus online and contact us today!