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What is it?

Barbiturates belong to a class of prescription hypnotic-sedative depressants that affect the central nervous system. They have widely been replaced by different drugs because they are dangerous in higher doses and can be both physically and psychologically addictive. However, they still are used commonly to treat forms of epilepsy. Commonly-abused barbiturates include amobarbital (Amytal), pentobarbital (Nembutal), and secobarbital (Seconal).

Slang Terms:

Barbs, birds, blockbusters, Christmas trees, goof balls, pinks, red devils, reds and blues, yellow jackets.

How is it used?

Barbiturates are usually swallowed in pill form or liquid gel pill form, crushed as a powder and added to liquid, injected, or used as a suppository. Drug abusers use barbiturates to get high, or after using stimulants, to “come down.” The drugs are also used in combination with alcohol, which multiplies their effects and can be life threatening.

Signs of usage:

When high on the drugs, the user may experience slurred speech, sluggishness, shallow breathing, fatigue, disorientation, and dilated pupils. The drugs often cause drunk-like behavior as the user experiences mild euphoria. Breathing disorders, general chronic tiredness, physical coordination problems, and menstrual irregularities are signs of prolonged use.

Effects of usage:

Used as a drug of abuse, barbiturates may cause a person to feel euphoric and relaxed and act with poor judgment. He or she may experience slurred speech and an awkward gait when walking. The calming effect of the drugs is why barbiturates are often used to counteract the anxiety and other negative sensations felt when withdrawing from stimulant drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines. Sluggishness and sedation also occurs at higher doses, as well as fever, dizziness, and respiratory depression. Overdose with barbiturates or use with alcohol can be deadly.

How long do the effects last?

The effects of barbiturates can last from 4 to 16 hours or longer. Symptoms of use may gradually fade over the week after use, depending on the dose. Use over a period of time usually builds up tolerance to the drugs, so users must take larger doses to get the same effects. When users take the drug daily for more than a month, usually beyond the therapeutic dose, the brain easily develops a need for the drug. When a user is psychologically addicted to the drugs, finding and using the drug becomes the focus of life.

Effects of withdrawal:

Effects of withdrawal or abstinence include shallow breathing, tremors, insomnia, and agitation, and can escalate to high temperature and hallucinations. Barbiturate withdrawal can be more dangerous than heroin withdrawal at high doses. Life threatening respiratory depression can occur with withdrawal. When regular users abruptly stop taking the drugs at high doses, they may develop symptoms from insomnia to restlessness and anxiety to convulsions and death.

Adverse reactions:

Respiratory depression can lead to death. In fact, barbiturate overdose is a factor in nearly one third of all reported drug-related deaths, because accidental overdose may be very close to what is considered a safe dose. Barbiturates are also commonly implicated in suicides. When barbiturates are used as a club drug, the user becomes vulnerable to assault or sexual assault.

Effects of prolonged usage:

Physical and psychological addiction can develop rapidly with these drugs. If taken as an antidote to stimulant drugs, the vicious cycle is hard to break. Chronic breathing problems, slowed reflexes, continual inebriation, and sexual dysfunction are also risks of prolonged use. All withdrawal symptoms noted remain serious risks with prolonged use. Abstinence can result in dangerous symptoms and must be medically supervised.

Usage by youth:

Even though barbiturates were mainly drugs of abuse during the ‘60s and ‘70s, there has been a moderate resurgence of use of barbiturates by youths during the last ten years. This is in part because of the popularity of stimulant drugs and the use of barbiturates to calm agitation during withdrawal. Because barbiturates have a longer duration of effects, they are not the most popular drugs. In 2001, 2.8 percent of high school seniors reported use of barbiturates. Barbiturates, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyerate), and benzodiazepines are all used in the club and rave drug scene. Often users in these settings do not know that barbiturates and other sedativehypnotics have been added to a drink.

Recent Developments:

Club drugs are very dangerous and include the use of debilitating sedative hypnotics like barbiturates. So-called club drugs are also available on the Internet.

Information provided by Dr. Barbara A. Krantz, Chief Medical Officer at the Hanley Center

First Check Diagnostics, LLC is offering these resources for informational purposes only, and the Hanley Center is no way affiliated with any of the entities that provide the resources.