Barbiturate Abuse Overview
Barbiturates are a group of drugs in the class of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics, which generally describes their sleep-inducing and anxiety-decreasing effects.
- Barbiturates were first used in medicine in the early 1900s and became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as treatment for anxiety, insomnia, or seizure disorders. With the popularity of barbiturates in the medical population, barbiturates as drugs of abuse evolved as well. Barbiturates were abused to reduce anxiety, decrease inhibitions, and treat unwanted effects of illicit drugs. Barbiturates can be extremely dangerous because the correct dose is difficult to predict. Even a slight overdose can cause coma or death. Barbiturates are also addictive and can cause a life-threatening withdrawal syndrome.
- Barbiturate use and abuse has declined dramatically since the 1970s, mainly because a safer group of sedative-hypnotics called benzodiazepines are being prescribed. Benzodiazepine use has largely replaced barbiturates in the medical profession, with the exception of a few specific indications. Doctors are prescribing barbiturates less, and the illegal use of barbiturates has also substantially declined, although barbiturate abuse among teenagers may be on the rise compared with the early 1990s. Addiction to barbiturates, however, is uncommon today.
- There are many different barbiturates. The primary difference among them is how long their effects last. The effects of some of the long-acting drugs may last up to 2 days. Others are very short acting. Their effects last only a few minutes.
- Barbiturates can be injected into the veins or muscles, but they are usually taken in pill form. The street names of commonly abused barbiturates describe the desired effect of the drug or the color and markings on the actual pill.
Downers, blue heavens, blue velvet, blue devils
Nembies, yellow jackets, abbots, Mexican yellows
Purple hearts, goof balls
Reds, red birds, red devils, lilly, F-40s, pinks, pink ladies, seggy
Rainbows, reds and blues, tooies, double trouble, gorilla pills, F-66s
Barbiturate Abuse Causes
Although the medical use of barbiturates has declined since the 1970s, and street abuse was also in decline, 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 increase in the abuse of barbiturates may be due to the popularity of stimulating drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines. The barbiturates ("downers") counteract the excitement and alertness obtained from the stimulating drugs.
- 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.
- 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-to-toxic range. 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 range, 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 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.