Barbiturates are synthetic CNS (central nervous system) depressants once commonly used as sedatives and to treat anxiety and seizures. Their actions range from inducing mild sedation to general anesthesia and, if used in excess or with other depressant substances, may result in overdose, coma, and death. A barbiturate overdose does not have to be lethal, but unfortunately, they often are.
Barbiturates are prescription drugs that can be short-acting, intermediate-acting, or long-acting. Common barbiturates include amobarbital (Amytal), phenobarbital (Luminal), pentobarbital (Nembutal), and secobarbital (Seconal).
Barbiturates used to be much more prevalent in prescription form than they are today. They have, in large part, been replaced by benzodiazepines (benzos). Benzos can be dangerously in and of themselves, but, in general, they are believed to have less potential for abuse, addiction, and overdose. That said, all sedatives, especially when used in excessive amounts or in combination with other drugs or alcohol, can be a cause for concern.
When discussing a barbiturate overdose, it is important to address abuse, because when used as prescribed by a doctor, an overdose is much less likely to occur. Barbiturates can be abused by taking the medication without a prescription or legitimate medical need. Misuse also includes tampering, such as crushing it and snorting it or diluting it with water for intravenous injection.
Barbiturates can stay in a person’s system for 4 to 16 hours, depending on the length of action of the specific drug used. They are relatively easy to overdose on and considered to be highly addictive, as a person can rapidly develop tolerance and become dependent on them in a short period. As such, barbiturate abuse is extremely risky, both in the short-term and long run.
The use of barbiturates can prove lethal, even in small doses. Due to the long-acting properties of some barbiturates, these drugs can remain in a person’s system for a prolonged period. If a person takes more than is prescribed during this time, it may then lead to toxic accumulation.
Also, the more barbiturates the individual uses, the more tolerant of their psychoactive effects he or she will become. The same is not true of a person’s tolerance to the medications’ life-threatening effects, however, and frequent, repeated use of these drugs substantially increases the risk of a deadly overdose.
The Global Information Network About Drugs (GINAD) reports that around 3,000 people die from an overdose related to barbiturates in the U.S. each year. Furthermore, approximately 60% of those overdoses are unintentional, while the other 40% are believed to be suicides.
Signs of a barbiturate overdose include the following:
- Cold, clammy skin
- Dilated pupils
- Weak pulse
- Low blood pressure
- Bluish skin, lips, fingers
- Loss of consciousness
- Shallow/labored breathing
- Gurling sounds (death rattle)
- Profound respiratory depression
There are more possible signs and symptoms that may also depend on other substances the person has ingested. All CNS depressants, including opioids and benzos, have many of the same effects that have the potential to result in one tragic trajectory if left untreated—respiratory arrest and death.
And, just like alcohol and other depressants, barbiturates can significantly reduce a person’s inhibitions and increase the risk that he or she will engage in impulsive and dangerous behavior.
Other side effects of barbiturate intoxication may include the following:
- Slurred speech
- Impaired coordination
- Slow or unsteady movement
- Mental fog
- Impaired concentration
- Poor judgment
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Aggressive behavior
Combining these drugs with other substances, especially other CNS depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines, or opioids, increases all risk factors. Doing so can reduce respiration and cardiovascular functions to perilously low levels, which is life-threatening.
Those who abuse barbiturates by injection and share needles may also be at a heightened risk of contracting infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. The risk of contracting an STD (sexually transmitted disease) due to impaired judgment and risky sexual behavior is also increased by heavy barbiturate use.
According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), in 2011, nearly 20,000 people in the United States received care in an emergency department for an adverse reaction to barbiturate abuse. Using these drugs regularly and long-term can result in chronic breathing problems that lead to bronchitis and pneumonia.
Other effects caused by long-term use of barbiturates may include the following:
- Memory impairments
- Reduced attention span
- Impaired reflexes
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle weakness
- Bone aches
- Chronic pain
- Liver damage
- Cardiovascular damage
The World Health Organization warns that the chronic abuse of these drugs can lead to barbiturate-induced residual psychotic disorder, a type of dementia hallmarked by problems related to learning, language, memory, judgment, calculation, and comprehension. Also, other higher cognitive functional deficits may become persistent and even permanent.
Among the most notable side effects of regular and continued abuse of barbiturates is the development of tolerance and chemical dependence. Tolerance occurs as the body is repeatedly exposed to these drugs, and the person will then be driven to use higher or more frequent doses to achieve the sought-after effects.
Also, the fact that tolerance to depressant effects does not increase at the same rate as psychoactive effects can be especially concerning because people may ingest higher doses in an attempt to feel better and unintentionally overdose as a result.
When a person takes a barbiturate, the action of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain is increased. GABA works to mitigate anxiety by diminishing physical and emotional responses to stress. Chemical dependence has developed when the body has adapted to the presence of barbiturates and can no longer function correctly without them.
As noted, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms accompany barbiturate dependence as the drug is eliminated from the body. Because barbiturates impair functions of the CNS and meddle with brain chemistry, when these drugs are suddenly absent after dependence has developed, the body can experience a rebound effect. This results in withdrawal symptoms.
Complications of barbiturate withdrawal have the potential to be life-threatening, and for this reason, these drugs should never be discontinued abruptly or “cold turkey.”
Barbiturate withdrawal symptoms may include the following:
- Irregular heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Abdominal cramps
- Muscle weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Drug cravings
Hallucinations and delusions may also result, and they are consistent with a withdrawal syndrome comparable to that of alcohol-induced delirium tremens (DTs). They can manifest as long as a week after stopping use and, if left untreated, lead to death. Barbiturate withdrawal should be closely monitored and treated by highly trained medical professionals in a clinical detox facility.
Treatment for Barbiturate Addiction
Addiction is now commonly regarded as a chronic brain disease by most experts and health professionals. It is a condition that can lead to many unwanted behavioral, emotional, physical, interpersonal, financial, and legal consequences. Barbiturate addiction can be effectively managed through participation in a comprehensive treatment program at a specialized facility, such as Just Believe Recovery.
Our center offers detox, as well as a variety of evidence-based services facilitated by highly-skilled, compassionate addiction professionals who deliver therapies to clients with care and expertise. We provide clients with the education, tools, and support they need to achieve abstinence and enjoy long-lasting happiness and wellness.
No matter what you have done or suffered through, you deserve so much better. Contact us today to find out how we can help you begin your recovery journey. We are dedicated to helping people pull themselves free from the grips of addiction so they can reclaim healthy, productive, and satisfying lives!