Barbiturate Abuse & Addiction

For a long time, barbiturates, a general class of sedative-hypnotic drugs, were the first-line of treatment for patients who required sedatives or anti-anxiety medications. Barbiturates have a long history. These drugs were initially used in medicine at the start of the 1900s. They became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as the go-to treatment option for anxiety, insomnia and seizure disorders. From there, they became widely used recreationally. People took them not only to feel high or relaxed, but also to eliminate some of the adverse side effects of other drugs. Overall, the use of barbiturates has gone down a great deal since the 1970s.

Now, doctors prescribe barbiturates in a much more limited manner. In some cases, barbiturates are prescribed to control symptoms of seizure disorders. They are also used to sedate patients before procedures and are less frequently prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia and headaches. For the most part, barbiturates have been replaced with safer medications that carry fewer risks and side effects.

Barbiturate addiction is one of the primary risks associated with this drug class. Physical and psychological dependence are possible and there is a relatively high risk of overdose. Benzodiazepines have now become a preferred treatment option, as well as other sedative sleep aids such as Ambien and Sonata. When someone regularly uses any barbiturate drug, they can quickly become tolerant to it. Tolerance can occur even with one dose of barbiturates. Tolerance can, and often does, lead to dependence. When someone is dependent upon barbiturates and suddenly tries to stop using them, they will go through withdrawal -which can be deadly.

Barbiturates act as central nervous system depressants. This drug class affects GABA neurotransmitters and receptors, much like benzodiazepines and prescription sleep aids. This is why barbiturates can provide a sense of relaxation, drowsiness or sedation. They slow brain activity due to their effects on GABA. However, there are specific components of barbiturates that make them more toxic than benzodiazepines if someone overdoses. People who recreationally abuse barbiturates may feel euphoric or very relaxed. When people abuse barbiturates chronically, there is a high risk of death.
There are different kinds of barbiturates. These drugs can be injected into a vein or muscle, but more often they’re taken as pills. The most commonly abused barbiturates have a designated street name based on their color. For example, generic amobarbital is blue and is called “blue haven,” “blue velvet” or “blue devils.” Pentobarbital is yellow and has street names such as “yellow jackets” or “Mexican yellows.” Phenobarbital is purple and may be referred to by street names like “purple hearts.” Secobarbital is red and is called “red birds” or “red devils.” Brand name barbiturates include Butisol, Seconal, Fioricet, Fiorinal and Esgic.
Barbiturates are considered to have a high potential for abuse and addiction. While the use of these drugs has gone down significantly since the 1970s, they are still abused and often used to counteract the effects of stimulant drugs like cocaine. Barbiturates are also one of the drugs most commonly used in suicide attempts. Some of the signs of barbiturate abuse can include elation, reduced inhibitions, impaired judgment, and changes in mood or emotion. People using the drug may seem to be very tired, relaxed, or sedated. Other signs of barbiturate abuse can include slurred speech and confusion. Barbiturate abuse doesn’t necessarily mean someone is addicted, but using these drugs recreationally increases the chances of becoming addicted.

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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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