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January 7, 2022

What Are Barbiturates Used For?

Barbiturates are a family of sedative-hypnotic drugs developed to treat sleep problems, seizures, and anxiety disorders. Routinely prescribed two or three generations ago, medical barbiturates have now been largely replaced by benzodiazepines, which carry less risk of accidental overdose. Barbiturates are still used, however—both medically and illicitly.

About Barbiturates

The first barbiturate drugs were developed in the late nineteenth century. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century and for much of the generation following, barbiturates were the medication of choice for most sedative-hypnotic prescriptions, though benzodiazepines were available as an alternative by the 1960s.

In small doses, barbiturates produce a sense of relaxation and/or drowsiness. Effects of larger doses may include:

  • Sensations of intoxication—loss of inhibitions and mental clarity
  • Difficulty walking or standing up
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowing of vital body functions
  • Deep sleep or coma

Dangers of Using Barbiturates

Today, medical use of barbiturates is mostly limited to anesthesia and to carefully supervised cases of insomnia, epilepsy, or chronic headache, when other drugs have proven ineffective. One reason barbiturates fell out of wider medical use is that they are among the easiest drugs to overdose on: even a tiny bit too much can be coma-inducing or lethal. Barbiturate-containing medications should never be taken in greater amounts than prescribed, under any circumstances.

Unfortunately, many people (though fewer people now than fifty years ago) still use barbiturates without any prescription or medical advice, for such purposes as:

  • Achieving a recreational “high”
  • Reducing inhibitions or anxiety
  • Mitigating the effects of stimulant drugs such as methamphetamines and cocaine

Barbiturate drugs have also been implicated in suicide attempts.

Barbiturate Addiction

Prescription or illicit, overuse of these drugs can lead to barbiturate addiction—a common problem in the 1970s which became rare in the late twentieth century, but is showing signs of comeback in recent years.

Addiction can develop after just a few weeks of daily barbiturate use. Symptoms may include:

  • Frequent drowsiness
  • Unexplained euphoria, or “acting drunk” without the presence of any alcohol smell
  • Impaired concentration, poor memory, or other brain-fog symptoms
  • Mood swings or reckless/rude/violent behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Low blood pressure
  • Poor coordination
  • Evasiveness or defensiveness when asked about symptoms/behavior
  • Withdrawal symptoms (muscle tremors, insomnia, violent agitation, pounding heart, hallucinations, fever, gasping for breath, and/or seizures) when a regular dose of barbiturates is skipped

As with benzodiazepines and alcohol, withdrawal can be life-threatening if such symptoms as seizure, increased heart rate, or rising body temperature reach dangerous levels. Barbiturate withdrawal should never be undertaken without medical supervision.

When Barbiturate Addiction Is Suspected

If you’ve been taking a barbiturate prescription—or using barbiturates for any other purpose—and suspect that your use is becoming a toxic dependence, report these concerns to your doctor immediately. Do this even if you have taken the drug strictly according to prescription: ideal barbiturate doses are notoriously difficult to calculate, and you may well be getting more, or taking the prescription for longer, than is good for you.

In any case, the best way to avoid barbiturate-related dangers is to use the drugs only as advised by a doctor—advice that frequently includes taking the prescription for a limited period only, stopping before addiction has a chance to develop. The same goes for similar sedative-hypnotic medications such as benzodiazepines: they are intended as an aid in recovery from such problems as severe anxiety or insomnia, and should never be used as a permanent substitute for other treatment. Ultimately, recovery from addiction or anxiety depends a great deal on the patient’s willingness to implement more effective and healthier solutions than popping a pill.   

When Barbiturate Use Is Out of Control

Whether started as part of a medical prescription or on one’s own, barbiturate use can too easily become an addiction. If you suspect that you are addicted to barbiturates or another drug, don’t try to ignore the problem—or to quit cold turkey. Get medical help to ensure the safest, most effective detox and follow-up care. Beach House offers supervised, holistic treatment in a comfortable setting: contact us to learn more.