What are Barbiturates? 

Barbiturates are sedatives prescribed to patients with sleep disorders and other mental illnesses to calm them down and put them to sleep.  They act as depressants on the central nervous system. One of the oldest types of sedatives that are in use, barbiturates were first developed for medical use in the early 1900s. It wasn’t until the 1960s that barbiturates really took off, becoming a popular treatment for anxiety, insomnia and seizure disorders.

Soon after the widespread use of barbiturates they began to be abused, in particular to reduce anxiety, decrease inhibitions or treat the unwanted effects of illicit drugs. Barbiturates can be extremely dangerous because the correct dose is difficult to predict. Even a slight overdose can cause coma or death.

Barbiturates are also addictive and can cause a life-threatening withdrawal syndrome.

Common street names of barbiturates are tuinal, seconal, nembutal, barbs, downers, blues, reds, sekkies, sleeping pills, sleepers, amytal, seonal, goof balls and christmas trees.

The Use and Abuse of Barbiturates

Barbiturates are usually swallowed in pill form or injected. They are often abused as a substitute for alcohol and people use them to get a sense of euphoria and relaxation. On the street they are often taken with cocaine, amphetamines, and crystal meth.

Barbiturates can be abused because they can counter the effect of illegal drugs. They act as a relaxant on the brain and have a similar effect to painkillers, sleeping pills and antihistamines.

Barbiturates are also used for:

  • Pentobarbitone or thiopentone is used in induction of general anesthesia

  • Phenobarbitone and Pentobarbitone is used in some cases of epilepsy

  • Sedation and hypnosis to calm the patient and induce sleep

Signs of Barbiturate Abuse

Some of the signs that can be observed when someone is addicted to this class of drugs includes:

  • constant falling,

  • bruised legs,

  • excessive nervousness,

  • shaking,

  • sensitivity to noise,

  • restlessness,

  • sweating,

  • hallucinations and insomnia.

The effects of barbiturates can last from 4 to 16 hours or even longer in some cases.

High doses of barbiturates depress both nerve and muscle activity and inhibit oxygen consumption in the tissues. In low doses barbiturates act as a sedative, in other words they have a tranquilizing effect. Increased doses have a hypnotic or sleep-inducing effect and still larger doses have an anticonvulsant and anesthetic effect.

Short term effects of barbiturates include: slurred speech, shallow breathing, sluggishness, fatigue, disorientation, lack of coordination, dilated pupils, impaired judgment, irritability, mild euphoria, lack of inhibition and drowsiness.

Long-term effects of barbiturates include: chronic tiredness, lack of coordination, vision problems, dizziness, slowed reflexes, sexual dysfunction and breathing disorders.

Health Risks

Barbiturates in high doses can cause depression of the respiratory centre of the brain and in severe cases of overdosage there is a complete suppression of respiration leading to respiratory arrest and ultimately death.

One of the main dangers of abusing barbiturates is that the difference between the dose causing drowsiness and one causing death may be small. In the medical profession, this difference is called a narrow therapeutic index. This is the reason why barbiturates are very dangerous. A normal dose is very close to a lethal dose and therefore an overdose can be caused by just a few extra tablets.

In addition to having a narrow therapeutic index, barbiturates are also addictive. If taken daily for longer than about one month, the brain develops a dependence on the drug, which causes severe withdrawal symptoms if the drug consumption is stopped without medical supervision.

Those who are long term users are also at risk of pneumonia and bronchitis. With long term use there is risk of developing extreme mood swings, bouts of depression, impaired memory, erratic sleep schedules, insomnia, intense weakness and fatigue.

Barbiturates Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms can include irritability, nervousness, delirium, sleeplessness, fainting, nausea, twitching, tremors, high blood pressure, sweating, seizures, muscle pain, confusion, and hallucinations. Because barbiturates decrease rapid eye movement during sleep, during which dreaming takes place, withdrawal can results in sleep disruptions such as nightmares, insomnia or vivid dreaming.

Barbiturate Addiction Detox and Treatment

Someone who has overdosed with barbiturates should be immediately taken to a general hospital (Accident and Emergency Department). Once the immediate threat is over barbiturate abusers need extended inpatient rehabilitation and therapy until they can be considered completely drug-free.

Please visit our treatment page to find out more about drug rehabilitation at Castle Craig.