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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Barbiturate Abuse

Barbiturate Abuse Causes

Although the medical use of barbiturates has declined since the 1970s, high school surveys suggest abuse has been rising over last 10 years. A common reason to abuse barbiturates is to counteract the symptoms of other drugs; the barbiturates ("downers") counteract the excitement and alertness obtained from stimulant drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.

  • Today’s drug abusers may be too young to remember the death and dangerous effects barbiturates caused in the 1970s, so they underestimate the risks of using them.
  • Barbiturates are also commonly used in suicide attempts.

Barbiturate Abuse Symptoms

In general, barbiturates can be thought of as so-called brain relaxers. Alcohol is also a brain relaxer. The effects of barbiturates and alcohol are very similar. Pain medicines, sleeping pills, and antihistamines also cause symptoms similar to those of barbiturates.

People who abuse barbiturates use them to obtain a “high,” which is described as being similar to alcohol intoxication, or to counteract the effects of stimulant drugs.

  • In small doses, the person who abuses barbiturates feels drowsy, disinhibited, and intoxicated.
  • In higher doses, the user staggers as if drunk, develops slurred speech, and is confused.
  • At even higher doses, the person is unable to be aroused (coma) and may stop breathing. Death is possible.

It is important to note that the difference between the dose causing drowsiness and one causing death may be small. In the medical profession, this difference is called a narrow therapeutic index, which is the ratio of a drug's toxic dose to its therapeutically desirable dose. This is the reason why barbiturates are dangerous. It is also why barbiturates are not often prescribed today.

In addition to having a narrow therapeutic index, barbiturates are also addictive. If taken daily for longer than about 1 month, the brain develops a need for the barbiturate, which causes severe symptoms if the drug is withheld.

Symptoms of withdrawal

Symptoms of withdrawal or abstinence include tremors, difficulty sleeping, and agitation. These symptoms can become worse, resulting in life-threatening symptoms, including hallucinations, high temperature, and seizures.

Pregnant women taking barbiturates can cause their baby to become addicted, and the newborn may have withdrawal symptoms.

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