The Dangers, Effects and Risks of Barbiturates Abuse

The Dangers, Effects and Risks of Barbiturates Abuse

Abusing barbiturates can result in great risks. About one in 10 individuals who overdose on barbiturates will die. 1

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are depressant medications used to treat sleeplessness, anxiety, muscle spasms and to prevent seizures. Some prescription brand names include Seconal®, Nembutal®, Pentothal® and Fiorina®. Street names for illicit barbiturates include Goof Balls, Reds & Blues, Pinks, Red Devils and Yellow Jackets. Barbiturates are manufactured in pill form and injectable liquid.

Where From Do Barbiturates Originate?

Introduction of Barbiturates to Medicine in 1904

Barbiturates were synthesized at the start of the 20th century for their sedative and hypnotic properties. Bayer and Co introduced the first barbiturate to the United States in 1904, opening the door to significant changes in the ways that drugs were used to treat psychiatric and neurological disorders. 1 The first barbiturate, called diethyl-barbituric acid, was also used to treat insomnia, serious neuroses and psychoses, epileptic seizures and played a major role in the development of intravenous anesthesia.

1920s to the 1960s

From the 1920s to the mid-1950s, the growth of barbiturates exploded, as they were just about the only medications used as sedatives and hypnotics.2 During this time, barbiturates were commonly used, even though no barbiturate succeeded in eliminating their main drawbacks: dependence and fatal overdose. In light of these drawbacks, laws were passed to regulate the distribution and sale of barbiturates.

Unfortunately, laws did little to reign in the production on barbiturates because, in the USA, barbiturates production, in 1955, reached the quantity necessary for the treatment of 10 million people for a whole year. By 1962, it’s estimated there were approximately 250,000 Americans addicted to barbiturates.

Current Trends in Barbiturate Use and Misuse

While the use of barbiturates decreased overall from 2015 to 2016 (452,000 vs 434,000 people respectively) the misuse of barbiturates had been on the rise for the same time period. According to SAMHSA’s 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 2

  • In 2015, approximately 46,000 people reported misusing barbiturates.
  • In 2016, the number of people reporting the misuse of barbiturates rose to 74,000.

The Roles of Barbiturates Today

Today, barbiturates are limited to very specific therapeutic uses. 1

Phenobarbital and Butabarbital:

  • used as sedatives in cases of gastrointestinal and asthma disorders
  • used to counteract the adverse stimulant effects of some drugs (dextroamphetamine, ephedrine or theophylline)
  • used to treat withdrawal syndromes

Phenobarbital and Primidone:

  • used to treat certain types of epilepsy
  • used in emergency treatment of convulsions

Thiopental and Methohexital:

  • used as intravenous anesthetic inducers
  • used as a sedative in certain diagnostic imaging tests

Phenobarbital and Butabarbital:

  • used as sedatives in cases of gastrointestinal and asthma disorders
  • used to counteract the adverse stimulant effects of some drugs (dextroamphetamine, ephedrine or theophylline)
  • used to treat withdrawal syndromes

Phenobarbital and Primidone:

  • used to treat certain types of epilepsy
  • used in emergency treatment of convulsions

Thiopental and Methohexital:

  • used as intravenous anesthetic inducers
  • used as a sedative in certain diagnostic imaging tests

What Do Barbiturates Do to the Body?

Barbiturates are central nervous system (CNS) depressants that slow down brain activity. They have the following effects because of the nerves and brain functions it:4

  • Lowers heart rate, respiration and blood pressure
  • Can diminish balance and motion
  • Can cause slurred speech
  • Can impair judgement
  • Can cause erratic and unpredictable behavior

In low doses, barbiturates can give a sense of body and mind relaxation. In higher doses, barbiturates can cause vomiting, nausea, fainting, and cause complications that can be fatal.

Long Term Barbiturate Use Effects

When someone takes barbiturates for several weeks or longer, tolerance develops where the person needs larger doses to achieve the same effects. If the person takes barbiturates for one month, there is a high risk for developing a dependence. Continued use can also lead to withdrawal when use is reduced or abruptly stopped. A sudden stop can also cause harmful consequences such as seizures.4

What Is the Detox from Barbiturates Like?

If you or a loved one suspect a dependence on barbiturates, it’s essential to not attempt to stop taking them without first getting professional help (a medically supervised detox). Withdrawal symptoms from barbiturates can be severe and potentially life-threatening.

A medically supervised detox helps alleviate withdrawal symptoms, prevent more serious complications and provides preparation for long-term rehab to avoid relapse.

One approach to managing a barbiturate detoxification is to stabilize the body by giving an intermediate-acting barbiturate in controlled, therapeutic doses to avoid seizures or delirium and to keep other withdrawal symptoms at a minimum. 5 The doses are tapered down gradually until the body is free of barbiturates.

Detoxification is not a standalone treatment for barbiturate dependence, but rather it’s the first important step in a comprehensive treatment plan for long-term sobriety.

What Are Common Struggles When Getting Sober from Barbiturates?

In the early stages of recovery, relapse back to substance abuse is a common struggle. It’s important to use any relapse prevention strategies that were learned during treatment. Relapse is typically an indicator that something is still missing from treatment. After a relapse, its helpful to think about the situations that may have lead up to the relapse in order to properly prevent relapse in the future. It’s never too late to pursue a life free from substances.

What Types of Therapies Are Available for Barbiturate Abuse Treatment?

Evidence-based treatment programs will use behavioral therapies to help people in rehab change their attitudes and behaviors regarding drug use. The goals are to teach people how to handle stress and triggers that could cause relapse. Behavioral therapies along with medication-assisted treatment can also help people stay in treatment longer.


Cognitive behavioral therapy aids individuals to recognize, avoid, and cope with the stressors and triggers that could result in drug use.

Contingency Management

This method uses positive reinforcement (rewards and privileges) for abstinence, engaging in treatment, or for taking treatment medications as scheduled.

Family Therapy

Especially for young people, family therapy helps improve overall family functioning.


Motivational enhancement therapy helps maximize an individual’s readiness to make changes in behavior.

12-Step Groups

Therapy is held in 12-step mutual support programs. One well-known example of this type of group is Alcoholics Anonymous. 12-step groups provide social support to other treatments by helping participants build a peer network.

Where Can You Find Help With Barbiturate Addiction?

The first step to safely treat barbiturate dependence and addiction is to enter a medically supervised detox. Once that is complete, the next steps to long-lasting sobriety involve attending long-term substance abuse treatment. There are several types of rehab to choose from.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient or residential treatment provides 24/7 care to ensure the safety and well-being of their clients. Stays can range from a few weeks to several months.

Medical professionals and mental health care staff monitor individuals around the clock, medications are available when needed, and therapy and group sessions are conducted. Nutrition is given to restore good health through a proper diet. Holistic treatments such as yoga, art and music therapies and exercise, help round out a comprehensive program to heal both mind and body.

Following residential treatment programs, it’s essential for individuals to stay engaged in outpatient treatment programs and aftercare programs to help reduce relapse risks once they leave inpatient treatment.

Outpatient Rehab

After detox, some individuals choose to enter outpatient rehab. Other people first complete a residential treatment program and then enter outpatient rehab.

Outpatient rehab provides treatment on a part-time basis. Clients attend treatment during the day and return home afterwards. The same types of substance abuse recovery services that residential treatment provides are available, but the person doesn’t have the around the clock care option.

Outpatient treatment programs are suitable for people with milder substance abuse issues, and also for those who need to work or attend to family obligations. Group counseling is a major component of outpatient services.

Sober Living Homes

Recovery housing helps people who lack a social support network or need help transitioning from substance abuse treatment into daily living. Sober living houses are supervised, short-term living environments where residents are helped in making the transition to independent lives.

Getting the Help You Need

For many people, detox, medication and therapy are the most effective ways to recover from barbiturate abuse. Recovery can take time, and relapse can happen, but it’s important to keep trying to avoid the sometimes deadly complications from barbiturate abuse. Start by finding a reputable treatment center for an assessment and detox, so a revitalized and sober life can be yours.