Barbiturates Abuse Causes, Statistics, Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

What are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are a class of drugs that function as a central nervous system depressant. This allows these drugs to have wide ranging effects, from mild sedation to complete anesthesia. Barbiturates are commonly used in procedures that require general anesthesia as well as an anticonvulsant for individuals suffering from seizure disorders, delirium tremens, and insomnia. Barbiturates are typically classified according to speed of onset and duration of action, such as ultrashort, short, intermediate, and long-acting. Though barbiturates were primarily used to treat anxiety, increasing reports gave evidence that barbiturates often led to overdose or dependence problems, which led to the scheduling of barbiturates as controlled substances. Barbiturates are less commonly prescribed today comparative to previous decades, especially since other drugs have been proven to have the same effect as barbiturates but with decreased risk of side effects or overdose. Common barbiturates are as follows:

  • Secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Amobarbital (Amytal)
  • Butalbital (Fiorinal, Fioricet)
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • Amobarbital (Amytal)
  • Phenobarbital (Lunial)
  • Methohexital (Brevital)

Barbiturates are a dangerous class of drugs because there is little difference between a therapeutic and toxic dose, which can quickly lead to overdose. Since barbiturates are powerful central nervous system depressants, even small dosages can cause long term damage, or even death. Barbiturates can be taken in pill form or can be injected directly into veins or muscles. Barbiturates are known by several street names, which describe the desired effect of the drug or the color and markings on the actual pill. Examples of common street names for barbiturates include: “Downers”, “Red birds”, “Purple Hearts”, “Mexican Yellows”, “Blue devils”, “Goof balls”, “Double Trouble”, and “F-66s”. Barbiturates are extremely dangerous drugs due to the risk factors associated with them, such as increased risk of overdose and death. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to barbiturates, it is important you seek the necessary help to overcome this addiction.

Barbiturates Abuse Statistics

Because the federal government restricted access to barbiturates in 1970, minimal research has been compiled about these classes of drugs. This is especially true as other drug classes have commonly replaced barbiturates for various uses. However, surveys by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that women are more likely to receive barbiturate prescriptions than men because they are more likely to seek help for depression, anxiety, and insomnia. The survey also found that barbiturates are more commonly prescribed to elderly persons, who use these drugs as sedatives [1]. Overall, the use of these drug classes is declining.

Causes of Barbiturates Addiction

Even with the overall decline in barbiturates use since the 1970s, many individuals continue to abuse these drugs and attempt to obtain them illegally on the black market. Social trends have influenced the use of barbiturates, such as to counteract the symptoms of other drugs. For example, barbiturates function as a “downer”, and may be used to counteract the stimulating effect of drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamines. Others may begin abusing barbiturates because they are unaware of the dangerous side effects or have little knowledge of how quickly an overdose can occur. Barbiturates abuse can commonly co-occur with other forms of addiction, such as alcohol, other drugs, or gambling.

Signs and Symptoms of Barbiturates Addiction

The abuse of barbiturates can lead to serious and even life-threatening signs and symptoms. The effects of barbiturates are similar to that of alcohol, and are often thought of as “brain relaxers”, or “downers”. If you are concerned that you or a loved one may be dealing with an addiction to barbiturates, be aware of these signs that may occur:

  • Lack of motor coordination
  • Shallow breathing
  • Sleepiness
  • Slurred Speech
  • Sedation
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Inability to make concise decisions
  • Forgetfulness, disorientation, confusion
  • Lack of facial expression
  • Disruptive vocalizations

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these side effects as a result of a barbiturates addiction, it is crucial that you seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Barbiturates Effects

A barbiturates addiction will often result in hardships that will develop beyond physical complications, such as severed relationships, lost job opportunities, or difficult financial situations. If you or a loved one is unable to treat or address the abuse of barbiturates, this can lead to ongoing physical, psychological, emotional, and social destruction. Possible side effects from the abuse of barbiturates include the following:

Physical Effects – Abusing barbiturates can be fatal to your body, even if taken in small dosages. Physical effects can include:

  • Disorientation
  • Respiratory distress
  • Drowsiness/Confusion
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Motor dysfunction
  • Respiratory depression
  • Headache
  • Slowed, slurred speech
  • Unconsciousness, coma
  • In cases of overdose, death may result

Psychological Effects – The abuse of barbiturates can lead to damaging psychological effects:

  • Suicidal ideations
  • Severe anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Mood disorders
  • Hallucinations
  • Depression

Social Effects – The addiction to barbiturates can negatively interfere with your social life and activities in the following ways:

  • Disruptive behaviors that impede relationships
  • Decreased social interactions
  • Lack of interest in activities or hobbies once enjoyed
  • Isolation from social activities and events

An addiction to barbiturates can only be treated if and when there is recognition of the severity of the problem along with the admittance that help is needed to overcome. Individuals addicted to barbiturates are likely to overdose or inflict harm to their bodies, and obtaining the help of a professional treatment team will be the most effective way to promote lasting recovery.

Barbiturates Withdrawal

Since most barbiturates addictions are related to short or intermediate acting drugs, discontinuing the drug abruptly can quickly lead to withdrawal symptoms. Many of these symptoms can develop within the first few hours after the last use of barbiturates, but can last up to a week depending on the dosage taken and length of time barbiturates have been abused. Barbiturates withdrawal effects can include the following:

  • Hypotension
  • Hallucinations
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Irritability
  • Sleeplessness
  • Restlessness
  • Cardiovascular collapse
  • Delirium
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating

Barbiturates treatment facilities can be an important part of the detoxification process from barbiturates. Health professionals can help oversee the detox process, minimize withdrawal effects by gradually tapering, and providing medical supervision. Since withdrawal symptoms can be quite severe, medical supervision during the withdrawal process is recommended. Treatment programs for a barbiturates addiction will be able to help with withdrawal symptoms as well as in overcoming the vicious cycle of abuse.

Barbiturates Treatment and Help

If you have been stuck in the abuse cycle of barbiturates addiction, you may feel as though you can continue your life without seeking professional help or resources. However, a barbiturates addiction can be fatal, harming your life not only physically, but psychologically and socially as well. Fortunately, help is available to those who wish to overcome this addiction and freely live their lives. The first step towards overcoming an addiction to barbiturates is to recognize the problem at hand. Once you are able to determine that help is needed, you can move towards finding a professional barbiturates rehab center for overcoming the addiction. While an addiction to barbiturates can be overwhelming for you or your loved one, this battle does not have to be fought alone. Having the help of a professional treatment team or rehab center can allow for the best care and ultimately, give you the hope and resources you need to overcome this addiction.


[1]: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 27, 2014
Published on, Guide for Substance Abuse Help