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Barbiturate Abuse Side Effects, Symptoms, and Addiction Treatment

What Are Barbiturates Used For?

Barbiturates are sedative-hypnotic drugs that were once commonly used as sedatives or anti-anxiety medications. A physician must prescribe barbiturates; otherwise, their use is considered illicit. Among their limited uses, barbiturates are used to manage some seizure disorders, as well as for pre-procedural sedation. In rarer instances, they are prescribed for the treatment of headaches, anxiety, and insomnia. However, their use in most areas of medicine has largely been supplanted by that of other, safer medications.

Barbiturates are controlled substances due to the potential they pose for abuse, physical dependence, and addiction.

Some of the more common barbiturates include:1,2

  • Luminal (phenobarbital).
  • Brevital (methohexital).
  • Seconal (secobarbital).
  • Butisol (butabarbital).
  • Fiorinal (butalbital).

Phenobarbital has a relatively narrow therapeutic range, which means that the dose needs to be just right for it to be safe and effective. Those who take phenobarbital to control seizures are regularly tested to see if the drug concentration in their bodies is within the right range. For those abusing barbiturates like phenobarbital, their likelihood of visiting a doctor to test their drug levels is extremely low. These users are at high risk of quickly boosting the concentration of the drug in their bodies to toxic levels if they regularly misuse it.

Even in the short term, the effects of barbiturates, if taken in excess, can quickly reach dangerous and potentially deadly levels. Also, because barbiturates are often taken with other drugs such as alcohol, narcotic painkillers, and even stimulants, the risk is even higher.

Barbiturate Abuse

Some people abuse these drugs because they desire the pleasant psychoactive effects of barbiturates, which are similar to those of alcohol. These effects include making the user feel happy, relaxed, more talkative, and less inhibited.

Barbiturates can be swallowed in pill form, crushed and snorted, or injected intravenously.

Abusing barbiturates is extremely dangerous and can lead to severe short- and long-term physical and psychological symptoms, physical dependence, and accidental death.

Signs and Symptoms of Barbiturate Abuse

Woman with signs of Barbiturate abuse

Some common signs of barbiturate intoxication include:1,2,3

  • Increased talkativeness.
  • Elation.
  • Reduced inhibition.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Emotional fluctuations.
  • Sedation (users may seem really relaxed or drowsy).
  • Slurred speech.
  • Lack of coordination (users may fall over frequently).
  • Confusion.

Long-Term Barbiturate Side Effects

A person who is abusing barbiturates will exhibit signs that are similar in presentation to those of someone who is intoxicated by alcohol. Barbiturate side effects include, but certainly are not limited to the following:1,2,3

Physical Health

  • Increased sensitivity to sound.
  • Increased sensitivity to pain.
  • Changes in blood pressure.
  • Breathing difficulties.
  • Increased risk of developing bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Irregular menses in women.
  • Sexual dysfunction.
  • Increased risk of kidney failure.
  • Respiratory depression.
  • Overdose.
  • Death.

Mental Health

  • Anxiety, restlessness, or panic.
  • Impaired mental functioning.
  • Emotional instability.
  • Loss of short- or long-term memory.
  • Insomnia.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Depression.

Occupational and Social Functioning

  • Occupational issues or job loss.
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and responsibilities.
  • Strained relationships.
  • Neglect of self-care, such as exercise and diet.
  • Fatalities.

Teen Barbiturate Abuse

barbiturate prescription on doctor's desk

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2013, approximately 50% of high school seniors admitted to abusing prescription medications, and about 5% of these admitted to having access to or to abusing sedatives.5 A large number of these students reported that they were aware of how to gain access to a number of illicit drugs and medications, including prescription medications.

As mentioned above, barbiturates are not as commonly prescribed as they once were. However, teenagers may have access to barbiturates that are prescribed to their parents or grandparents and, in some cases, they may be able to obtain them illegally on the street.

Sedative drugs are particularly attractive to younger people because they provide psychoactive effects similar to those alcohol, without the obvious smell. Because teenagers are not fully developed emotionally, the cognitive side effects of barbiturate abuse might manifest themselves more readily in these individuals. For instance, teen users might be more prone to engaging in risky behaviors and express extreme emotional states as a result of barbiturate abuse. They may:1,2,3

  • Have an increased likelihood of aggression and assault.
  • Drive while intoxicated.
  • Mix barbiturates with alcohol or other depressants, which can be fatal.
  • Use too much of a drug, which could lead to accidental overdose.

A number of detrimental emotional side effects are associated with barbiturate abuse, and teenagers may be more prone to developing emotional or mental health issues, such as:2

  • Anxiety.
  • Isolation.
  • Depression.
  • Suicidal thoughts.

If you recognize addiction symptoms in your teenager—such as increased mood swings that alternate between sedation and isolation and any other signs of abuse—it is important that you take action immediately. Doing so can prevent some of the more severe and/or life-threatening side effects of barbiturate use from occurring. You can speak to a substance abuse therapist, a psychiatrist, your child’s primary care physician, or an interventionist if you are concerned that your child may be abusing barbiturates.

Barbiturate Addiction Treatment Programs

If you or a loved one is struggling with barbiturate addiction, help is available and recovery is possible. Professional addiction treatment can start anyone battling a substance use problem on the path to a happier and healthier life. Rehab programs are located throughout the U.S., and many offer specialized treatment that can cater to individual needs. You can use SAMHSA’s Find Treatment tool to search for facilities. Many state government websites will also provide local drug and alcohol resources to those in need. To find your state government’s website, do a web search for your state name and ‘.gov.’

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment programs and has trusted rehab facilities across the country. If you need help with drug abuse or addiction, please contact AAC free at to learn about rehab programs and treatment options with us. You can also call free drug abuse hotline numbers.

Barbiturate Addiction Treatment Levels of Care

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