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Barbiturate Overdose Symptoms, Risk Factors, Prevention, and Treatment

Woman experiencing Barbiturate Overdose

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates—sedative medications that include phenobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital, and butalbital—have historically been used as hypnotic (sleep-inducing) agents and sedating anesthetics. Though less commonly prescribed today, they continue to be used for the management of a number of conditions, ranging from seizure disorders to headaches. They are available in tablet and liquid solution forms. While the long-term effects of using barbiturates are less clear, the short-term dangers of barbiturate misuse may include slowed breathing, disorientation, problems with concentration and memory, fatigue, and slurred speech.

In 2014, approximately 2,700,000 Americans, or 1% of the population, reported using barbiturates for non-medical purposes without the supervision of a medical professional.1 Non-medical use may involve buying the drugs on the street without a prescription, taking another person’s medications, or using more than prescribed. Those taking barbiturates non-medically are at particular risk for overdose, especially if combining the substance with other central nervous system depressants like alcohol or opioids (heroin, prescription painkillers).

Barbiturate overdose can be dangerous and possibly fatal, with approximately 10% of barbiturate overdoses resulting in death.3 Knowing the signs and symptoms of barbiturate overdose and taking preventative measures can help to improve the outcome and avoid fatality.

Risk Factors for Barbiturate Overdose

Certain factors may put barbiturate users at increased risk of overdose, such as:

  • Using a drug for non-medical purposes.
  • Using a drug in larger amounts or more frequently than prescribed.
  • Using a drug over longer periods of time than intended.
  • Mixing barbiturates with alcohol, opioids, or other drugs.

Additionally, age, environment, and physical and mental health may also impact a person’s risk of overdose. It is important to discuss any pre-existing health issues with your doctor.


Tolerance occurs when a person requires more of a drug to reach the same desired effect or experiences less of an effect with the same amount of a drug. Tolerance to barbiturates can occur quickly and may pose serious dangers.

Barbiturate users who’ve developed a tolerance to a substance may end up taking dangerous doses to achieve a high. However, their bodies may not be able to handle the amount of the drug, and an overdose may result.

Also, a person’s tolerance may decrease after going through a period of cessation. An overdose can occur if he or she begins using the same amount of the drug again, since the body is no longer tolerant to this amount. Barbiturate users are especially cautioned to be careful of relapse following a period of abstinence.

What to Do in Case of Barbiturate Overdose

If you or someone you know is experiencing a barbiturate overdose, call 911 immediately.

man overdosing on barbiturates

Barbiturate overdoses should be assessed by medical professionals, who can treat the symptoms and minimize the risk of dangerous complications or death.

If you witness a person experiencing a drug overdose, it is recommended that you stay with the person and remain on the phone with a 911 operator until an ambulance arrives. Be prepared to share any information you may have on the person, including:

  • What drugs they used.
  • How much they used.
  • Any pre-existing health conditions.

Drug Overdose Prevention

If you are using barbiturates, consider taking steps to reduce your risk of overdose:

  • Take all medications as prescribed.
  • Avoid mixing barbiturates with other drugs and alcohol.
  • Consult with a medical professional if you feel that you need changes made to your medication regimen.
  • Avoid taking other people’s prescription medications, which may be prescribed at different dosages.
  • Discuss any other prescription or illicit drugs you are taking with your doctor.

Barbiturate Treatment Programs

If you are using barbiturates non-medically, the best way to prevent overdose is to end all use. However, it can be dangerous to quit barbiturate use alone due to certain potential withdrawal symptoms, such as convulsions and delirium. Barbiturate detox centers provide comfortable, monitored environments in which you are able to safely clear drugs from your system; in many cases, they are a safer alternative to quitting on your own. After detox, barbiturate users may benefit from ongoing substance abuse treatment in order to deal with their reasons for using and learn new ways of coping. Treatment for barbiturate addiction may include:

  • Inpatient or residential treatment programs—These centers offer the opportunity to stay at a facility and attend intensive daily therapy sessions for the duration of the program. Inpatient stays can range from a few weeks to several months depending on each person’s needs and the particular program.
  • Outpatient treatment programs—This treatment type offers therapy sessions for a set number of hours per week. Clients in outpatient treatment live at home or make other off-site living arrangements, and they may continue to work or attend school while participating in treatment.

In addition to treatment programs, there are recovery meetings, which are free support groups for people struggling with addiction. 12-step groups like Narcotics Anonymous and SMART Recovery offer support and tools for people at all stages of recovery.

Sober living homes can also be beneficial—especially in early recovery—for people struggling with addictions to prescription drugs like barbiturates. These homes are staffed by house managers who conduct random drug testing, enforce house rules, and monitor residents to ensure a drug- and alcohol-free environment.

If you or someone you care about has experienced a barbiturate overdose or is struggling with addiction, consider seeking treatment. One call might be all it takes to save a life. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment programs and has trusted rehab facilities across the country. Get help now when you call AAC free at .

Barbiturate Addiction Treatment Levels of Care

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