• ADHD books published by NorthEast Books & Publishing, by Association for Youth, Children and Natural Psychology
  • ADHD books published by NorthEast Books & Publishing, by Association for Youth, Children and Natural Psychology


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Barbiturates and Other Depressants (Understanding Drugs), by Christine Adamec

Barbiturates are central nervous system depressants that are sedating and sleep-inducing, giving users a "hypnotic" feeling. They are used as anesthetics or to treat epilepsy, insomnia, anxiety, or severe headaches.

Benzodiazepines, another type of central nervous system depressant, are used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and epilepsy. Benzodiazepines and barbiturates are highly addictive and are sometimes illegally abused. When used improperly, they can cause death. Barbiturates and Other Depressants provides important information on the nature and chemistry of these drugs, their effects, abuse, addiction, and addiction treatment. Chapters include: An Overview, Historical Overview, How Barbiturates Work, Barbiturate Abuse and Addiction, Addiction Treatment and Recovery, Barbiturates and the Law.

Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac, by David Herzberg

Excellent... stresses the dynamics of sex roles and social class that underlie the culture of psychotropic drug use. He grounds the success of tranquilizers in the consumer culture that emerged after World War II, emphasizing the shrewd marketing techniques that allowed drug companies to separate their products, which appealed to a largely white, middle-class constituency, from the illegal drugs that were used by marginalized racial, ethnic, and class groups. Drug companies also promoted the tranquilizers in ways that reinforced traditional sex roles, implying that their products would allow men to strengthen their authority at home and in the office and would allow women to embrace their duties as wives and mothers. (Allan V. Horwitz, Ph.D. New England Journal of Medicine 2009)

See also: Marijuana and Medical Marijuana

Page updated December 8, 2012

Barbiturates, Abuse, Intoxication, Overdose, Signs, Prevention


Barbiturate intoxication and overdose
Barbiturates are a type of depressant drug that cause relaxation and sleepiness. In relatively low doses, barbiturates and alcohol have very similar clinical syndromes of intoxication.

However, excessive and prolonged dosages of barbiturate drugs, such as phenobarbital, may produce the following chronic symptoms: memory loss, irritability, changes in alertness, and decreased interpersonal functioning. Barbiturates may also cause an acute overdose syndrome, which is life-threatening.

Phenobarbital is a barbiturate, in the hypnotics category. It is commonly used in treatment of seizures and epilepsy.
Phenobarbital is a barbiturate use for treating seizures. Photo: Food and Drug Administration

Barbiturates, Causes of Abuse

Barbiturate abuse is still a major addiction problem in the population, although it has been partly replaced by addiction to other depressant drugs more commonly prescribed, such as benzodiazepines.

Though most people who take these medications for seizure disorders or pain syndromes do not abuse them, many abusers start by abusing medication prescribed for them or for other family members.

Symptoms of acute barbiturate intoxication include:

  • Altered level of consciousness
  • Difficulty in thinking
  • Drowsiness or coma
  • Faulty judgment
  • Incoordination
  • Shallow breathing
  • Slowness of speech
  • Sluggishness
  • Slurred speech
  • Staggering

  • Exams and Tests

    Physical exam and clinical history are usually sufficient to make the diagnosis. Drug screens, both urine and serum, can detect barbiturates for up to 5 days after ingestion. Additional blood tests may show the severity of breathing difficulty.

    The most common physical exam findings seen in a barbiturate overdose are:

  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Decreased breathing rate (respiratory depression)

  • Treatment

    Most overdoses of depressant medications are mixtures of drugs, commonly alcohol and barbiturates or benzodiazepines, or barbiturates and opiates (heroin or Oxycontin).

    Some users use a combination of several drugs. Those who take such combinations tend to be either new users who don't know that such combinations are a recipe for coma or death, or experienced users who want to entirely blot out consciousness. This second group is among the most difficult to treat.

    Because mixtures are the most common cause of death, an opiate-blocking drug called naloxone (Narcan) is often used to treat overdose when an opiate was part of the mix. If opiates are involved, naloxone will often rapidly restore consciousness and breathing.

    There is no direct antidote to barbiturates or alcohol overdose. In such overdoses, respiration must be maintained by artificial means until the drugs are removed from the body. Some drugs may help speed the removal of barbiturates.

    Outlook (Prognosis)

    For barbiturate overdose or mixture overdose, the death rate is about 10%, and can be higher if proper treatment is not readily given. Early deaths result from cardiovascular collapse and respiratory arrest.

    With current life support measures, including decontamination, supportive care, and helping the body eliminate the drugs, mortality may be less than two- percent.

    Possible Complications

    Barbiturates may cause prolonged coma and may damage fetuses of pregnant women.

    When to Contact a Medical Professional

    Call 911 immediately if someone has taken barbiturates and seems lethargic or has slowed breathing, or if someone has taken barbiturates with alcohol, opiates, or benzodiazepine drugs. These drugs together cause greater effects than each alone. More than half of all overdose deaths result from drug mixtures.


    Do NOT take barbiturates, except as prescribed. Do NOT exceed the prescribed dose. Never mix barbiturates with heroin (or other opiates), Valium (diazepam), benzodiazepines, or alcohol of any kind.

    References for Barbiturates Intoxication and Overdose

    Schears RM. Barbiturates. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 163.

    Source of article and references: MedLine Plus https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000951.htm