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Barbiturate Addiction & Abuse: Effects, Signs, & Treatment

Barbiturates are depressant drugs that can produce a wide range of central nervous system (CNS) depression, from mild drowsiness to complete sedation, to inducing a coma.1,2 Sedative-hypnotic drugs like barbiturates may be prescribed to treat seizures or used as an anesthetic.3

Although barbiturates are prescription drugs, they can lead to physiological dependence and addiction, and have other potential long-term side effects. Professional treatment is available if you or someone you love is struggling with barbiturate addiction.

This article will cover:

  • What are barbiturates, including barbiturate examples.
  • What addiction to barbiturates is like.
  • Long-term use of barbiturates effects.
  • How to find help for barbiturate addiction.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are sedative drugs once widely prescribed for their anxiolytic, sleep-inducing, and anticonvulsant properties. They are known to produce a relaxing effect on the brain and the body and have been used medically for these purposes.1 Barbiturates may be small, multicolored pills or tablets that are taken orally or a liquid that is injected into a vein or muscle.1,2

Though effective for managing seizures and pre-operative anxiety, prescriptions for and use of barbiturates has significantly declined, due in part to the increased risk of overdose compared to benzodiazepines.4 Medical professionals view other drugs, including benzodiazepines and prescription sleep medications (e.g., Ambien), as safer and more effective options.4

Commonly used in the 1900s, few barbiturates are used medically today.1

Are Barbiturates Addictive?

Most barbiturates are Schedule II controlled substances, indicating they have a high potential for abuse and dependence.1,4 Misusing any central nervous system depressant, including barbiturates, can lead to physiological dependence and addiction.5

When they are consumed, barbiturates trigger specific chemical changes in the brain. Barbiturates enhance the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that relays certain types of signaling between brain cells; this, in turn, leads to reducing CNS stimulation and nerve impulses to produce drowsiness and sedation.4

Barbiturates have certain effects that make them desirable, including relief from anxiety, sedation, and mild euphoria.1 For some people, these positive feelings reinforce continued use, often with escalating frequency and dosing, as the body becomes tolerant to the effects.4 This not only raises the risk of addiction development but also of overdose.1

Barbiturate Effects

The effects of intoxication from barbiturates can vary widely and are influenced by various individual factors, including the dose taken. However, some common effects are experienced by most people when using barbiturates.

As CNS depressants, barbiturates affect the brain by increasing the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical that inhibits CNS stimulation and nerve impulses.1,3 The effects of barbiturates on the mind and body may include:1

  • Sleepiness.
  • A mild feeling of euphoria.
  • Relief of anxiety.
  • Lack of inhibitions or restraint.

When taken in larger doses, or misused, barbiturates can also cause the following effects:1

  • Impaired coordination, memory, and judgment.
  • Irritability.
  • Paranoia
  • Suicidal ideation.

Signs of Barbiturate Addiction

Addiction to barbiturates is classified as a sedative use disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).6 

The symptoms of sedative use disorder include:6

  • A problematic pattern of sedative use lasting 12 months or longer.
  • Taking larger amounts of sedatives over time or for longer periods than originally intended.
  • Trying and failing to cut back or stop using sedatives.
  • Spending a lot of time trying to obtain the sedatives, use them, or recover from using them.
  • Cravings or urges to use sedatives.
  • Failing to complete your usual responsibilities at work, home, or school because of sedative use.
  • Using sedatives despite having persistent interpersonal problems caused by using them.
  • Giving up your usual social, occupational, or leisure activities because of sedative use.
  • Using sedatives in physically hazardous situations, such as driving.
  • Using sedatives despite knowing that they are causing or worsening an existing physical or mental health problem.
  • Developing a tolerance to sedatives, meaning that you need to use more to achieve the same effect, or experience a significantly diminished effect when you use the same amount.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking sedatives or using sedatives to avoid or prevent withdrawal symptoms from occurring.

Dangers of Barbiturate Abuse

Misuse of barbiturates can be dangerous and result in overdose, which can be fatal.1 Overdose occurs as a result of CNS depression, which affects the body by increasing your heart rate; slowing your breathing; and lowering your blood pressure, body temperature, and urine production.1 A barbiturate overdose can lead to coma and potentially death.1

It can be especially dangerous to mix barbiturates with other substances. Taking barbiturates in combination with opioids or other CNS depressants—including benzodiazepines, and alcohol—can pose a high overdose risk as it may lead to oversedation and severe respiratory depression.2

Barbiturate Addiction Treatment Programs

If you or someone you know is misusing barbiturates, help is available. Treatment programs are available in a variety of formats, differing levels of care, and may use different therapeutic approaches. It is important to find a treatment option that meets your unique needs to help you start on the road to recovery.

Some of the levels of care for addiction rehab include:7,8

  • Inpatient treatment involves staying at a hospital or other facility that is staffed around the clock and has both medical and psychiatric staff available. This type of setting can be beneficial for people with more severe barbiturate addiction, those with significant mental or physical health issues that require additional medical attention, or those with unstable or unsupportive home environments that would otherwise not be conducive to recovery.
  • Outpatient rehab programs may be more appropriate for people who have relatively less severe addictions, less acute addiction related issues, have already completed an inpatient or residential programs have jobs or children that they can’t leave while in treatment, have access to reliable transportation, live in stable housing, and have supportive social and family networks. There are different levels of care within outpatient treatment, with required time commitments and programming intensity being adjustable, depending on your needs.

Contact American Addiction Centers at to speak to one of our admissions navigators to learn more about treatment options for yourself or your loved one struggling with barbiturate misuse and addiction. You can also easily and quickly check if your insurance is in-network by filling out the form below.

If you’ve noticed a problem in yourself or someone that you love, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. People recover from addiction every day—it’s possible to live a life that doesn’t include substance abuse.

Barbiturate Addiction and Treatment FAQs

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