Barbiturate Abuse and its Potentially Deadly Withdrawal

When you think about common abused drugs, barbiturates most likely do not come to mind. As a type of central nervous depressant, barbiturates have a wide range of affects from mild sedation to full anesthesia or anticonvulsant. 

Barbiturate Abuse and its Potentially Deadly Withdrawal

When you think about common abused drugs, barbiturates most likely do not come to mind. As a type of central nervous depressant, barbiturates have a wide range of affects from mild sedation to full anesthesia or anticonvulsant. The drug requires a prescription from a doctor and generally cannot be refilled without a follow up appointment. Due to their extreme physical effects, barbiturates are commonly abused. However, what people don’t realize is that overdosing on these medications is very easy. Moreover, the withdrawal can be one of the most severe out of all prescription drug addictions.

What Barbiturates May Be Prescribed For

Barbiturates once were the go to choice by doctors to treat people with anxiety. Due to frequent overdoses and dependency problems, other drugs such as benzodiazepines replaced them. Nowadays, barbiturates are used for procedures which require a general anesthetic, seizure disorders, delirium tremens and severe insomnia. In some cases, a person will be prescribed a barbiturate for panic attacks or anxiety, but this is done only in serious cases and for a short term period. The medications are classified according to the onset and duration. Some are “ultra short” with the remaining being short, intermediate and long acting drugs. 

Some of the most common barbiturates include:

  • Brallobarbital (Vesparax)
  • Butobarbital (Soneryl, Butisol)
  • Butalbital (Fiorinal, Fioricet)
  • Cyclobarbital (Phanodorm)
  • Methylphenobarbital (Prominal)
  • Mephobarbital (Mebaral)
  • Methohexital (Brevital)
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • Phenobarbital (Luminal)
  • Secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Talbutal (Lotusate)
  • Thiopental (Pentothal)

All of these barbiturates are taken in a pill form or injected in the veins or muscles. They’re extremely powerful and have very little difference between a therapeutic and toxic dose. Affecting the central nervous system, small dosages can cause long term damage when taken for an extended amount of time. When barbiturates are overused or mixed with other drugs, the risk of overdosing and death is extremely high.

Street Names for Barbiturates

Although street names; or slang terms, for barbiturates can vary from location to location, you may hear the following as a reference to these heavily abused drugs. Red birds, purple hearts, Mexican yellows, blue devils, phennies, barbs, blue birds, yellow jackets and F-66’s.

The Physical and Psychological Effects of Barbiturates

The effects of barbiturates are similar to that of alcohol. In small amounts, a person may feel calm with a total relaxation of the muscles. In larger amounts, speech difficulties, confusion, poor decision making and staggering can result. In general, these effects can last between 4 and 6 hours on the short duration types like Secobarbital and 8 to 12 hours on long acting types like Phenobarbital. High doses of any barbiturate can cause slowed breathing, unconsciousness and death.

The psychological effects can vary from each person; however, slower reflexes, brain activity and heartbeat are common. When these responses in the body become slower, the risks of engaging in activity, operating machinery or driving significantly increase.

Causes of Barbiturate Abuse and Addiction

Although barbiturate prescriptions have been on a decline since the 70’s, there is still an underground social trend in their abuse. Many individuals will use them to counteract the effects of other drugs. For example, barbiturates act as a downer and can counteract the symptoms and effects of stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine. Others may abuse the drug because they suffer from sleeping disorders and use it as an aid. Unbeknownst to many of these people is how quickly overdosing on barbiturates can be.

Over the last decade, it has also become increasingly common for barbiturate rehabs to treat individuals with a co-occurring disorder to alcohol, meth or gambling and the medication.

Signs and Symptoms of Barbiturate Abuse

Noticing the signs of barbiturate use can be very obvious; even in plain sight.  The following are various visible effects which an abuser will display. These include:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Grogginess
  • Sedation
  • Decreased anxiety and emotions
  • Inability to make consistent decisions
  • Forgetfulness
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Difficulty walking

In addition to the aforementioned, an abuser may be disruptive, display out of the ordinary behavior, become anti-social and lose any interest in activities which they once had.

Withdrawing from Barbiturates

Within 2 to 3 months of consistent barbiturate use, a person can develop a tolerance and addiction. Once this has happened, it is important to understand that a doctor or rehab for barbiturates should be implored to come off of the medication. As a “GABAergic” drug; barbiturate withdrawal can produce life threatening effects, like seizures, which are similar to those of delirium tremens and benzodiazepine withdrawals. However, the barbiturate withdrawal can be even more severe than the aforementioned making it one of the most dangerous withdrawals out of every known drug. Like benzodiazepines, the longer acting the barbiturate drug is, the less severe the withdrawal will be.

Treating a Barbiturate Withdrawal and Addiction

Often a person with a barbiturate addiction will require the assistance of a rehab and detox. Barbiturate withdrawals may include pharmaceutical medication like long acting benzodiazepines (i.e. Valium).  Cravings for the drug can be very intense and last for months or even years.  Counselling, addiction support groups and cognitive behavioral therapy are the most effective ways to help a person during the initial recovery phase.

It’s vital to understand that no one should ever attempt to quit barbiturates on his or her own because of sudden onset of the withdrawal coupled with a high risk of fatality. Quitting cold turkey can lead to brain damage, physical injuries, cardiovascular collapse, suicidal thoughts and death due to glutamatergic excitotoxicity.

Getting Help for a Barbiturate Addiction

If you or someone you know abuses or has an addiction to barbiturates, you may think for a moment that you can quite on your own. However, a barbiturate addiction is extremely serious and can be fatal. Moreover, the mere psychological effects from the physical withdrawal can be detrimental to your mental wellbeing.

A rehab for barbiturates will be the most practical form of treatment. You will be supported in a safe environment while being given the help you need to have the most comfortable withdrawal possible. Once the initial detox is complete, you will continue the rehab program by involving yourself into various types of therapies and healing approaches. Through this, you can overcome the addiction to barbiturates and begin to re-live your life to its fullest potential.

The very first step to overcoming an addiction is to realize there is a problem. Once you or your loved one has done this, you can reach out to a barbiturate rehab center.