All About Barbiturates

barbiturate diagram

When we hear the phrase “prescription drug abuse,” most of us think about opiates, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines. Barbiturates, however, are another type of prescription medication that carries a high risk for abuse, and many underestimate just how dangerous dependence on or abuse of barbiturates can be. Here is an in-depth look at barbiturates and what barbiturate abuse looks like.

Barbiturates defined

Barbiturates fall under the class of sedative-hypnotics drugs, meaning they are central nervous system depressants that have sleep-inducing and anxiety-reducing properties. These drugs have been commonly prescribed to treat headaches, anxiety, insomnia, and seizure disorders. Some common examples of barbiturates are amobarbital (Amytal), butabarbital (Butisol), pentobarbital (Nembutal), and secobarbital (Seconal).

History of use

Barbiturates became a popular treatment option in medicine in the 1960s and 1970s, and consequently this is when rates of barbiturate abuse rose significantly as well. During this period, many used barbiturates recreationally to help ease inhibitions, decrease anxiety, and treat unwanted side effects of other illicit drugs. Recreational users often turned to barbiturates for feelings of relaxed contentment and euphoria as well.

Since the 1970s, rates of barbiturate use and abuse have actually been on the decline. This is because a safer, though still very much addictive, group of sedative-hypnotics called benzodiazepines (benzos) has largely replaced the use of barbiturates in medicine. Barbiturates, however, are still used in some applications, such as to control seizures in certain disorders or to relieve anxiety and tension before surgery.

Risk of abuse

Barbiturates can be extremely dangerous because it is highly difficult to determine their proper dosage, and even a slight overdose can result in coma or death. The difference between a dose causing drowsing death can be very small (one major reason that barbiturates are not as frequently prescribed today). Barbiturates are also highly addictive, both physically and psychologically, and can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. And while since the 1970s barbiturate abuse has largely been on the decline, recent high school surveys indicate that barbiturate abuse could be seeing a rise in these past decade. This could be because young users are seeking to counteract symptoms of alertness and excitement from other drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines. Young users are also much less familiar with stories of death and dangerous effects of barbiturates from the 1970s, meaning that they largely underestimate the dangers associated with barbiturates. Barbiturates carry many of the same “downer” effects as alcohol, and combining them with alcohol can be lethal.