Barbiturates are a class of drugs that were, at one time, used as the top medications for treating anxiety and insomnia. Now, they’re prescribed much less often. One of the big reasons for the decline in prescribing of barbiturates is because they have a high potential for abuse. Barbiturates are central nervous system depressants. While they’re not prescribed often, barbiturates do still have some medical uses. They may be prescribed as a means to sedate patients before a procedure, as anticonvulsants, and for the treatment of migraines or cluster headaches. Barbiturates are also used in euthanasia, in capital punishment drug combinations, and for assisted suicide where it is legal. For the most part, because of the potential for abuse and addiction, benzodiazepines have replaced barbiturates in medicine.
Whenever someone is using a prescription drug in a way other than as instructed by a medical professional, it’s classified as abuse. The first signs of barbiturate abuse can be subtle. For example, a person might take more of the drug than they’re prescribed or use it more often than they’re supposed to. Using barbiturates without a prescription is also considered to be abuse. Or, using these drugs with another substance like alcohol, indicated barbiturate abuse.
Barbiturates affect GABA receptors and neurotransmitters in the brain and are considered to be central nervous system depressants. Symptoms of barbiturate abuse reflect this mechanism of action. A person who is abusing barbiturates may seem to be very relaxed, sleepy or sedated. Other symptoms of barbiturate abuse can include loss of inhibitions, problems walking and slurred speech. Symptoms of barbiturate abuse can seem similar to those of being drunk from alcohol.
Symptoms of barbiturate abuse may also include problems with cognition and judgment, lethargy, shallow breathing, or the appearance of stumbling. The dosage a person uses can impact the symptoms of barbiturate abuse. For example, in small doses, the symptoms primarily include drowsiness and disinhibition. At higher doses, a person will appear to be intoxicated. Beyond that point, symptoms can include coma or stopped breathing.
It’s very easy to become addicted to barbiturates, even after using drugs of this class only a few times. The same holds true for dependence. When someone is dependent upon barbiturates, their brain and body have become used to the presence of the drug. Stopping the use of barbiturates suddenly can cause withdrawal symptoms to surface. Barbiturate withdrawal can be severe in some cases. Psychological side effects of barbiturate abuse can include changes in mental function, hallucinations, anxiety or depression.
Addiction isn’t the same as abuse, but the two concepts are related. Barbiturate abuse refers to any scenario in which someone is using these drugs outside prescribed medical instructions. Addiction can stem from barbiturate abuse. Addiction is a brain disease that occurs because of the brain’s reward and reinforcement response to a stimulus, such as a barbiturate drug. When someone is addicted to barbiturates, they continue using the drugs even when they know there are negative effects. Other signs of barbiturate addiction can include
- Compulsive drug-seeking behaviors
- Preoccupation with obtaining more barbiturates and using them
- Intense cravings for barbiturates
- Poor performance at school or work because of drug use
- Lack of judgment and self-control
- Loss of control
- Problems with relationships and social interactions
- Legal and financial trouble
- Changes in hygiene or appearance
- Tolerance and dependence
- Failed attempts to stop using
- Trying to stop using barbiturates and being unable to
Over time, with continued barbiturate use, long-term effects are possible. Some possible long-term barbiturate effects can include social problems, such as strained relationships and problems with loved ones. It can also include job loss. Physical long-term effects associated with barbiturate use may include liver and heart damage, damage to the central nervous system, seizures, declines in cognitive function and decreased overall functionality.
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