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Barbiturates Side Effects: Short-Term, Long-Term, and Addiction Treatment

White sedative pills

What Are Barbiturates Used For?

Barbiturates are members of a broad class of drugs called sedatives that have historically been prescribed for the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. However, prolonged use at increasing doses may have severe health consequences, and it may even exacerbate the symptoms that the drugs are originally prescribed to treat.

There are different types of barbiturates that are generally categorized by how rapidly they work and how long they remain in an individual’s system for.2,3 All barbiturates, regardless of these categorizations, are classified as controlled substances by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration1 due to their potential for abuse and dependence.

Are Barbiturates Still Used?

Although barbiturates were once widely prescribed for anxiety and seizure disorders and used in surgical procedures as pre-anesthetics, their use has decreased significantly since 1970 following the implementation of federal government regulations regarding their dispersion.2,3 Benzodiazepines, certain antidepressants, and anticonvulsant medications have largely replaced barbiturates as anti-anxiety and anti-seizure medications.

Short-Term Effects of Barbiturates

Woman trying to relax with sedatives
Barbiturates depress the central nervous system and have effects that are similar to those of alcohol. The immediate effects associated with taking barbiturates include:1,2,3,4
  • Feelings of well-being or euphoria.
  • Reduced inhibitions.
  • Relaxation and sedation.
  • Lethargy and unconsciousness in higher doses.
  • Decreased anxiety.

Barbiturates Side Effects

Used as short-term medications, barbiturates can effectively relieve symptoms of insomnia and anxiety, provide pre-surgical sedation, and act as anticonvulsants for those with seizure disorders. Like all drugs, barbiturates have side effect profiles. Chronic abuse of barbiturates can produce a number of adverse effects, such as:1,2,3,4

  • Insomnia.
  • Increased sensitivity to sound.
  • Increased sensitivity to pain.
  • Increased perspiration.
  • Irritability.
  • Hallucinations or psychosis (rare).
  • Paranoia.
  • Memory and attention impairments.
  • Emotional instability.
  • Suicidal ideation.
  • Incoordination and impaired balance.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Stupor.

At high doses or in overdose situations, barbiturate use can result in coma, significant brain and other organ damage, or death due to respiratory suppression.

Long-Term Effects of Barbiturates

Long-term use and abuse of barbiturates can lead to a number of different complications, including:2,3,4

  • Breathing difficulties that become chronic, increasing a person’s risk of developing bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Loss of control over bodily movements, including twitching and/or problems with motor coordination.
  • Sexual dysfunction.
  • Irregular menses.
  • Slowed reflexes.
  • Shortened attention span.
  • Short- and long-term memory loss.
  • Cardiac issues.
  • Potential liver and kidney problems.
  • The development of physical dependence.

Chronic misuse or abuse of barbiturates also increases the risk of developing an addiction, which is characterized by problematic and maladaptive substance use despite negative consequences.

Barbiturate Dependence

Physical drug dependence develops over time with consistent barbiturate use. Physical dependence often arises in parallel with both tolerance (the need to use a higher dose of a drug to achieve the same effects that were once achieved at lower doses) and withdrawal (a series of negative psychological and physical symptoms that occur when levels of a drug in the system rapidly decrease2,4).

Physical dependence may develop when an individual uses drugs over a certain period of time, even when under the care of a licensed physician. Those who have developed physical dependence do not necessarily display other signs of addiction. It is quite possible that individuals who use drugs for medicinal purposes as prescribed will develop some physical dependency. However, these individuals do not necessarily have substance use disorders. By definition, a substance use disorder occurs when an individual exhibits a problematic pattern of use resulting in a number of negative outcomes.2,4 Individuals with substance use disorders continue to use drugs despite these adverse consequences.

Signs of Barbiturate Addiction

Signs that an individual has a substance use disorder or barbiturate use disorder include:4

  • Having a strong desire to take barbiturates.
  • Abandoning activities and responsibilities in favor of barbiturate use.
  • Continuing the use of barbiturates despite problems it causes medically, professionally, or personally.
  • Using barbiturates even in situations that are dangerous, without regard for the safety of self or others.
  • Increasing one’s dose of barbiturates to experience a level of euphoria and sedation once achieved with lower doses (tolerance).
  • Repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit due to overwhelming cravings (psychological dependence) or a desire to curb withdrawal symptoms (physiological dependence).

Barbiturate Withdrawal Treatment

If you or someone you love has become physiologically dependent on barbiturates, the body has reached a new state of equilibrium. Stopping abruptly can consequently put your body into shock, inducing withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of barbiturate withdrawal may develop within a few hours to a few days after cessation of use, depending on the type of barbiturate, and may include:2,3,4

woman sweating due to withdrawals from sedatives
  • Insomnia.
  • Rebound anxiety.
  • Involuntary muscle twitching.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Rapid pulse.
  • Hand tremors.
  • Muscle weakness that is progressive.
  • Dizziness.
  • Visual impairment and distortions.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Weight loss.
  • Seizures.
  • Delirium, hallucinations, or major psychotic episodes.

Less severe symptoms such as depression, irritability, issues with motivation, and cravings could persist for years in chronic users.

Barbiturate Detox Programs

Withdrawing from barbiturates can be severe and potentially life-threatening, and it should not be done on one’s own. The help of a physician-supervised withdrawal management program will both ease the more uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal and ensure a person’s safety from the more severe and potentially fatal symptoms. Medically supervised detox can also increase an individual’s chances of successful recovery from barbiturate dependence and addiction.5

The detoxification program for barbiturates typically involves a tapering method in which individuals are given successive decreasing doses of either a long-acting barbiturate or a benzodiazepine. This gradual process allows a person’s body to adapt to lower levels of barbiturates and slowly normalize its functioning without experiencing the severe effects of withdrawal.

Other medications may also be used to control specific symptoms that the tapering process does not effectively address. Medication-assisted techniques may prolong the withdrawal process. However, they also reduce symptoms and virtually eliminate the potential for any dangerous symptoms, like seizures. A professional, medically assisted detox program will be administered under the supervision of an addiction medicine physician or a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction.

Barbiturate Treatment Methods

It’s important for someone suffering from barbiturate addiction to understand that detox is only the first step of recovery. Continued addiction treatment in the form of inpatient or outpatient rehab can mean greater chances of successful recovery from substance abuse. Learn more about how to get help for barbiturate addiction.

Find Barbiturate Addiction Treatment Programs

Rehab programs are located throughout the U.S., and a variety of treatment types is available. 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 treatment provider and has trusted rehab facilities across the country. To learn more about rehab and treatment options with AAC, please contact one of our caring admissions navigators free at . There are also free drug abuse hotline numbers you can call.

Barbiturate Addiction Treatment Levels of Care

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