Barbiturate Abuse Signs, Symptoms & Effects

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Understanding Barbiturates

Learn about barbiturates and substance abuse

Barbiturates are a group of drugs from the sedative-hypnotic class of medications that were previously used to help induce sleep in individuals with sleep-related disorders and to help reduce anxiety symptoms. These drugs were popular throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, but now are not often used by medical professionals. Barbiturates quickly became a drug of abuse during the height of their popularity, as they allowed individuals to decrease their inhibitions, reduce anxiety, and corrected unpleasant side effects of other drugs of abuse. Today they are most often obtained on the streets, under names such as “yellow jackets,” “downers,” “goofballs,” and “reds.”

Barbiturates work by enhancing the activities of the neurotransmitter GABA, which then shuts off large portions of the brain, producing sedative and relaxing effects. After a while, physicians began to realize that barbiturates were an extremely dangerous and addictive class of drugs, due to the fact that the dose required to produce sedation was similar to the dose that could cause coma and death. For these reasons, doctors began to turn away from barbiturates and used benzos in an attempt to reduce the fatality risks.

These downers are found in multicolored pill capsules or in a liquid form. Although they are generally used in pill form, these drugs can also be injected intravenously, producing faster effects. The different formulations of barbiturates vary in the length of time their effects last, some lasting up to a few days at a time, while others last only minutes. These are fat-soluble drugs, which easily cross the blood-brain barrier. Since these drugs dissolve in fats, they can accumulate in the body and re-enter the bloodstream at a later time.

It’s been suggested that the resurgence in popularity of barbiturates may be due to the increase in the amount of stimulants that are being abused today. Individuals may use barbiturates to counteract the unpleasant symptoms associated with drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines. Whatever the reason for their use, these drugs are extremely dangerous and those who are addicted should seek treatment immediately.


Barbiturate addiction statistics

While most do not consider barbiturate abuse a common problem, it’s been shown that about 9% of individuals in the United States will abuse a barbiturate during their lifespan. Other statistics for this class of drugs are not as well known.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Barbiturate addiction and co-occurring disorders

Many individuals who become addicted to barbiturates have a co-occurring mental illness. The most common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Conduct disorder

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors of barbiturate addiction

The precise cause for the development of addiction remains unknown; no one is exactly sure why one individual becomes addicted to a substance while another does not. It’s been suggested that individuals who develop an addiction to barbiturates or other substances do so as a result of a number of factors working together to create this addiction potential. Causes for barbiturate addiction may include:

Genetic: It has been well-documented that many individuals who struggle with addiction problems have a first-degree relative who is also battling an addiction. While this does not guarantee the development of an addiction, this does greatly increase an individual’s chances of becoming addicted.

Brain Chemistry: Individuals who abuse barbiturates may have a different structure and functionality of the brain than other individuals. More specifically the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA binding sites may be structurally differently in those who abuse barbiturates. Some individuals may have inborn defects in this area of the brain, and as a result self-medicate with barbiturates in an attempt to feel more normal.

Environmental: Individuals who have been exposed to drug use and abuse at an early age are more apt to develop addiction in later life. These individuals may have learned that substance abuse is an appropriate way to cope with the stressors of life and in turn eventually develop an addiction problem.

Psychological: Sometimes individuals will use barbiturates as a way to come down from the effects of a high from another substance. This causes an individual to become addicted to barbs because they begin to rely on the effects to relax them and take away the anxiety created by another drug. Additionally, an individual may unknowingly have a mental health condition and self-medicate in an attempt to control the disruptive symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of barbiturate addiction

Barbiturates relax the brain, causing an individual who is on barbiturates to appear similar to an individual intoxicated from alcohol use. The symptoms of barbiturate abuse and addiction will vary depending upon an individual’s genetic makeup, the length of time an individual has been addicted, and the dosage an individual has taken. Common symptoms of barbiturate abuse include:

Mood symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Unusual excitement

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Slurred speech
  • Decreased motor control
  • Poor concentration
  • Lack of coordination
  • Sluggishness

Physical symptoms:

  • Hypotension
  • Dizziness
  • Bradycardia
  • Reduction of REM sleep
  • Respiratory depression
  • Sleepiness
  • Slowed pulse
  • Slow breathing
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Visual problems
  • Unable to urinate
  • Dilated pupils

Psychological symptoms:

  • Tolerance
  • Slowed brain function
  • Confusion
  • Impaired judgment
  • Dependence
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Addiction


Effects of barbiturate addiction

The long-term effects of barbiturate addiction will look different in each person. Most common long-term effects of barbiturate abuse include:

  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Changes in alertness
  • Decreased functioning
  • Irritability
  • Memory loss
  • Divorce
  • Liver damage, heart damage, CNS damage
  • Respiratory depression and arrest
  • Confusion
  • Job loss
  • Expulsion from school
  • Risky behavior
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms of barbiturate addiction

If used for a prolonged period of time, individuals who abuse barbiturates can become addicted and dependent upon the drug. The development of a barbiturate dependence makes it harder for an addict to give up the drug and leads to severe withdrawal symptoms. If you are addicted to barbiturates, it is vital to seek the care of a trained rehab center so a medical professional can help you safely and effectively withdrawal from barbiturates.

Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Agitation
  • Delirium
  • Convulsions
  • Weakness
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Dangerously high fevers
  • Seizures

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