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Signs and Symptoms of Barbiturate Addiction

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What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are a class of drugs most commonly prescribed during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s for sleep, muscle spasms, anxiety, and seizure disorders by medical professionals. These drugs work as central nervous system depressants by enhancing the neurotransmitter GABA, which inhibits the activity of nerve cells in the brain. 

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In the United States, barbiturates are Schedule II, III, and IV depressants under the Controlled Substances Act. They are prescribed much less often today due to their high potential for addiction and abuse and because there are safer options available today. Examples of brand names of the most common barbiturates are Amytal®, Fiorina®, Pentothal®, Seconal®, and Nembutal®. 

They are known by the street names “barbs,” “blockbusters,” “Christmas trees,” “pinks,” “reds & blues,” “yellow jackets,” “red devils,” “goof balls,” and “downers.” The names vary due to the variety of colors the medication comes in. Users can get pills, tablets, or liquid forms of the drug. Usually, drug addicts prefer short-acting barbiturates like Amytal® and Seconal®. 

Dangers of Barbiturates

Barbiturate use is a severe and deadly substance use disorder. Sometimes, barbiturate addiction can be challenging to identify. Hopefully, by learning the signs and symptoms of addiction, withdrawal, and overdose, this post can help you identify the addiction if you find yourself in a situation where someone is addicted to barbiturates.

How Common Is Barbiturate Addiction?

The popularity of barbiturates grew in the 1950s and were used until the 1970s. Once benzodiazepines were introduced, although still addictive but less addictive than barbiturates, doctors switched to using benzodiazepines such as Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and Halcion. However, according to WebMD, there has been a slight uptick in barbiturate substance abuse in recent years.

barbiturate addiction sign symptoms

Barbiturates have been a secondary drug of abuse for people who misuse alcohol as their primary drug of choice. Cross-addiction has long been associated with barbiturate abuse. Co-administering barbiturates with alcohol and opioids, as well as benzodiazepines, increases the risk of overdose significantly. When taken together, barbiturates and other substances have an additive effect that can be especially dangerous.

According to the DEA, barbiturates are generally abused to reduce anxiety, decrease inhibitions, and treat unwanted effects of illicit drugs. Barbiturates can be extremely dangerous because overdoses can occur quickly and lead to death.

Signs Of Barbiturate Addiction

Symptoms of barbiturate abuse affect the central nervous system, decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, etc. In general, someone using barbiturates acts “drunk” on alcohol. Drug users swallow pills or inject liquid forms of barbiturates. Below is a list of signs to look for.

Behavioral and Physical Signs

Common behavioral and physical signs of someone addicted to barbiturates:


  • Mood swings
  • Mild euphoria
  • Impaired judgment
  • Sedation (Really relaxed or tired)
  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of coordination (Users may fall easily)
  • Confusion


  • Sensitive to sound and touch
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Lack of restraint
  • Sleepiness
  • Respiratory depression
  • Coma

Psychological and Mental Signs

Common psychological and emotional signs of someone addicted to barbiturates:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Alcoholism
  • Substance abuse
  • Schizophrenia
  • Hallucinations
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of short and long-term memories
  • Emotional instability
  • Impaired mental functioning
  • Barbiturate dependence

How Do Barbiturates Affect Health?

With barbiturates, after two weeks, our bodies crave the euphoric relaxation and alcohol intoxication type feeling the drug gives us. Since this drug has a high potential for physical dependence, tolerance develops quickly, and larger doses are needed to produce the effects the drug user seeks, risking overdose.

Signs of Barbiturate Overdose

Taking higher doses of barbiturates is a potentially lethal situation. Barbiturates are highly addictive. Users taking barbiturates build a tolerance and need more of the drug to achieve the same high feeling as before. Soon, taking high doses of barbiturates and adding other illegal drugs to the mix is needed to get high. This can cause adverse effects and symptoms such as central nervous system depression, decreased respiration, increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, decreased urine production, decreased body temperature, coma, and possible death.

Signs of Barbiturate Overdose:

  • Incoordination or staggering
  • Impaired brain activity and judgment
  • Slurred speech or other speech impediments
  • Slowed or shallow breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Reduced urine output
  • Weak and rapid pulse
  • Clammy skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Coma and death

In the event of a suspected barbiturate overdose, call 911 immediately. The presence of medical professionals on the scene can improve the chances of surviving the overdose, which can be deadly.

Source: Barbiturate Overdose: Symptoms, Effects, and Risks

Withdrawal From Barbiturate Addiction

Withdrawal symptoms are just as dangerous as overdosing symptoms. They begin quickly after the last dose of a barbiturate, sometimes within 4 hours. These drugs become addictive if taken even for one month. For some people, they become addicted within weeks. Dangerous withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Restlessness
  • Low body temperature
  • Sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Death

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it may be time to seek assistance. Withdrawal is severe, and the addict needs to be taken care of by a medical professional. See below for information on Treatment for Barbiturate Addiction.

Treatment For Barbiturate Addiction

For someone seriously addicted to barbiturates and other heavy drugs like usage of stimulants such as amphetamines or methamphetamines, heroin, and cocaine, it’s best to reach out to a treatment center or hospital immediately. These cases may have severe withdrawal symptoms and need medical supervision. When helping someone with a barbiturate addiction, friends and family members should keep in mind that it is best not to let their loved one stop barbiturates cold turkey due to the high risk of withdrawal symptoms being too severe to handle at home.

A medical professional will need to be present during the withdrawal process, and this would be best to do in a medical detox unit in a hospital under medical supervision. Barbiturates cause heavy physical dependence, and a person addicted to them needs a safe environment to detox.

After the detox, there are many treatment options. These include 12-step programs or other support groups, outpatient and in-patient treatment centers, and a residential center or treatment program admission. Several interventions may be used. They may need prescription drugs such as anti-anxiety medications, but not any with physical dependence. Mental health services administration, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can be helpful along with substance abuse treatment. 

Things to Know About Barbiturates

  • Barbiturates are central nervous system depressants and should not be taken with alcohol or other drugs that slow the central nervous system, such as antihistamines, cold and allergy medicines, sleep medications, tranquilizers, medicine for seizures, narcotics, and muscle relaxants. Combining CNS depressants can lead to unconsciousness or death.
  • Barbiturates may alter the results of some medical tests.
  • Barbiturates may cause drowsiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, or decreased alertness. These side effects may be present in the morning after taking a barbiturate at bedtime. Do not drive, use machines, or do anything else that could be dangerous until you know how barbiturates affect you.
  • Children may be more sensitive to barbiturates and have additional side effects such as unusual excitement.
  • Older people and those who are very ill may also be more sensitive to barbiturates and have additional side effects such as confusion, depression, and unusual excitement.
  • Barbiturates should be administered with caution, if at all, to patients who are mentally depressed, have suicidal tendencies, or have a history of drug abuse.

Source: RxList

About the author
Shannon M
Shannon M's extensive experience in addiction recovery spans several decades. Her journey started at a young age when she attended treatment aftercare sessions for a family member and joined Alateen meetings, a support group for young people affected by a loved one's addiction. In 1994, Shannon personally experienced the challenges of addiction and took the courageous step of joining Alcoholics Anonymous. This experience gave her a unique perspective on the addiction recovery process, which would prove invaluable in her future work. Shannon's passion for helping others navigate the complexities of addiction led her to pursue a degree in English with a minor in Substance Abuse Studies from Texas Tech University. She completed her degree in 1996, equipping her with the knowledge and skills necessary to provide compassionate and effective support to those struggling with addiction.