What Drugs are Barbiturates?

Learn more about what drugs are barbiturates, what they’re used for, and their potential side effects in this informative article.

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What are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are sedative-hypnotic drugs that make the user feel drowsy and relaxed. They were used extensively in the 1960s and 1970s as a treatment for a variety of conditions, such as insomnia, anxiety, and seizure. The recreational use of barbiturates also increased during this period, which led the DEA to classify the drug as a Schedule II substance.1

Barbiturates have the potential to become addictive, leading the user to become physically and psychologically dependent on them. The use of barbiturates has significantly decreased in the present day, mainly due to the introduction of benzodiazepines, which are much safer.
what drugs are barbiturates

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How do Barbiturates Work?

Prescription barbiturates were first introduced for medical use in the 1900s to help prevent convulsions and seizures. Since the drug belongs to the sedative-hypnotic class, it affects your brain by increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical that slows the activity of your brain cells. By slowing brain activity, barbiturates create an overall depression of the central nervous system, producing drowsiness, sedation, and hypnosis.2

What are Barbiturates Used For?

Though the use of barbiturates as a sedative and a tranquilizer has decreased due to the high risk of abuse and addiction, they still play an essential role in neurology. Currently, barbiturates are primarily used as a medication that induces standard anesthesia and controls seizures. In addition, barbiturates work well with other prescription medications like acetaminophen to treat several conditions.

Barbiturate Uses

Some barbiturate uses include:
  • Sedation: Though more modern and safer alternatives have replaced barbiturates, they can still be used as a sedative.
  • Sleep induction: Barbiturates are effective in treating short-term insomnia, but they lose their effectiveness after two weeks.
  • Preanesthetic agents: They can be used as a sedative given to patients before surgery to lower anxiety and ease the process of introducing general anesthesia.
  • Seizure treatment: Barbiturates such as mephobarbital and phenobarbital are effective in treating partial and generalized cortical focal and tonic-clonic seizures.
  • Acute convulsions: It can manage acute onset convulsions such as meningitis, status epilepticus, eclampsia during pregnancy, tetanus, and toxic reactions to local anesthetics or strychnine.

Examples of Barbiturates

There are several types of barbiturates available on the market, with the main difference being how long they stay active in the body. Barbiturates that last for over twenty-four hours are known as long-acting barbiturates and are mainly used with other medications to prevent epilepsy or seizures.
In contrast, short-acting barbiturates last for less time and are mainly used to induce anesthesia before administering general anesthetics. However, some common barbiturates like thiopental (short-acting barbiturates) are no longer available in the United States.

Additional Examples of Barbiturates

Other examples of barbiturates include:
  • Amobarbital (Amytal): It can be used to treat insomnia, but it falls under short-acting barbiturates. It also helps with brain function tests.
  • Butabarbital (Butisol): Mainly used in combination with other medication, and depending on the combination, it can treat tension headaches and migraines.
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal): The drug is mainly used for pre-anesthesia and helps stop seizures.
  • Secobarbital (Seconal): Though its use is less common, secobarbital helps to treat insomnia, but most healthcare professionals avoid prescribing it.
  • Belladonna and phenobarbital: It is primarily used to prevent or stop seizures as they happen.
  • Methohexital: This type of barbiturate is especially useful for anesthesia in short diagnostics and treatment procedures

Side Effects of Barbiturates

Barbiturates can have both positive and negative side effects. There is an abundance of research to support the benefits of barbiturates, and they are typically used as a backup for ineffective first-line medications. However, the primary reason barbiturates are not prescribed is their potential negative side effects, which typically include dizziness, sedation, headache, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Dangerous and Harmful Side Effects of Barbiturate Use

Other adverse barbiturate side effects include:
  • Tolerance and addiction: Your body might tolerate a drug’s effect, meaning you’ll need a higher dosage for the drug to be effective. Due to increased dosage, you are at risk of possible dependence.
  • Heart and breathing Complications: Barbiturate pills lower your heart rate and blood pressure, which means consuming too much can make you stop breathing, which can be fatal.
  • Interaction with other medications: Barbiturates directly affect your liver, making it process other medications too quickly. This makes other drugs less effective, especially when taken simultaneously with barbiturates.
  • Affects fetus development: Pregnant women should avoid taking any barbiturates because they can disrupt fetus development and affect breastfeeding infants. After all, the drug can be passed on to the child through breast milk.
barbiturate drugs

Signs of Barbiturate Drug Overdose

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 400,000 Americans over the age of twelve reported using barbiturates in 2018, while 32,000 matched the criteria of barbiturate abuse.3

Developing a dependence on the drug can be very dangerous, with approximately 10% of barbiturate overdoses leading to death. If you suspect you or a loved one are struggling with barbiturate abuse, here are the most obvious signs that can be indicative of imminent barbiturate overdose:4
  • Disorientation
  • Impaired judgment
  • Slurred or slowed speech
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty in thinking
  • Changes in alertness
  • Memory loss
  • Lack of coordination
  • Irritability

Get Help for Barbiturate Addiction at Profound Recovery

If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction to barbiturates, there are a variety of possible treatment options available, ranging from detoxification to rehabilitation to different types of therapies.

At Profound Recovery, our highly-trained medical professionals utilize evidence-based treatment approaches and therapies to help our patients achieve and maintain their sobriety. Our team constantly evaluates the latest treatment options to ensure the most up-to-date and appropriate treatment that is tailored to each client’s specific needs.

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