Barbiturates are classified as sedative-hypnotic drugs which can be used to treat seizure disorders and insomnia. Though these medications are useful in managing seizures and anxiety, fewer prescriptions for barbiturates have been written since their numerous dangers were discovered in the early 1970s.
Abusing barbiturates can happen on purpose and by accident, as their therapeutic window is rather small. To have a therapeutic effect, barbiturates must be taken in precise doses. Someone can easily exceed the therapeutic dose and put themselves in danger.
It is very easy to become addicted to barbiturates. Barbiturate abuse may result in feelings of immense anxiety-relief and mild euphoria. These positive feelings may reinforce continued misuse of the medication, which often causes a person to become tolerant to some of the desired effects of the drug.
To achieve the desired effects after tolerance has developed, individuals may increase the frequency and dose at which they take barbiturates. Not only does this increase the rate at which they may become addicted to the drug, but it also increases the risk of dangerous side effects, including deadly overdose.
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There are many treatment options available for individuals who struggle with barbiturate abuse and addiction. Due to the dangerous side effects of barbiturate abuse, most individuals who find themselves addicted to the drug will need the help of a formal addiction treatment program to get off the medication safely and effectively.
Commonly Abused Barbiturates
Barbiturates have many different chemical formulas which are sold under brand names. Although the number of prescriptions for barbiturates has decreased, this class of drugs is still abused by some individuals.
Some of the most commonly abused barbiturates include:
- Amytal (amobarbital sodium)
- Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium)
- Seconal (secobarbital sodium)
- Luminal (phenobarbital)
Effects Of Barbiturate Abuse And Addiction
Barbiturates are central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which may cause feelings of euphoria, calmness, and relaxation. In addition to the calming effects of barbiturates, some individuals may also experience a wide range of adverse, short-term side effects, including:
- feelings of agitation or irritation
- excessive drowsiness
- frequent and sudden mood swings
- nausea and vomiting
- slowed reflexes or lack of coordination
- shallow breathing
- slurred speech
- trouble concentrating or mental confusion
Individuals who chronically abuse barbiturates for prolonged periods at higher than recommended doses will likely experience long-term effects as well.
Long-term effects of barbiturate abuse can include:
- impaired judgment
- trouble with short-term memory or memory loss
- changes in coordination
- suicidal thoughts and tendencies
- loss of consciousness and possibly death
Signs Of Barbiturate Abuse And Addiction
The signs that someone is abusing or may be addicted to barbiturates may not be obvious. Mostly, signs of abuse are shown in the side effects caused by abusing the drug. People under the influence of large doses of barbiturates may appear drunk with poor coordination and extreme drowsiness.
Some individuals may even become violent, hostile or paranoid while under the influence of barbiturates. Trouble breathing or rapid and shallow breathing sounds, as well as high body temperature, are common signs someone may be experiencing an overdose.
Typically, if they are confronted about this behavior, some people may try to cover up their drug use, possibly because they feel ashamed or guilty about their behavior or they believe that they are protecting the people close to them by hiding it.
Dangers Of Barbiturate Abuse
It can be difficult for doctors to determine what a proper dose of barbiturate medication may be. This is also an issue for individuals who abuse the drug. When barbiturates are taken in large and frequent doses, it significantly increases the risk of fatal overdose. In fact, some barbiturates have been used in doctor-assisted suicides, because large doses of this medication often rapidly produce lethal side effects.
Because the difference between a dose that will result in intoxication and a dose that will result in overdose is so small, symptoms of barbiturate overdose are very similar to signs of abuse. Individuals at risk of an overdose will likely experience shallow and dangerously slow breathing, high body temperature, drowsiness and possibly coma.
Barbiturate overdose may also lead to heart failure and lack of oxygen to the brain due to difficulties breathing, which may result in irreversible brain damage. About one in 10 people who overdose on barbiturates will die, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. If someone is suspected of overdosing on barbiturates, it is vital they seek medical attention immediately.
Once an individual develops a tolerance to the drug, their body will need it to function normally. If someone who has developed a tolerance to barbiturates decreases their dose, misses a dose or suddenly stops taking the medication, they will likely experience withdrawal symptoms.
Some barbiturate withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening. Usually, withdrawal occurs between eight to 16 hours after the last dose. Withdrawal may occur earlier if an individual has been abusing barbiturates for six months or more. These symptoms can last from a few days to a few weeks or longer, depending on the individual.
The beginning stage (first few days) of barbiturate withdrawal tends to be when the most severe and unpleasant symptoms occur.
Possible barbiturate withdrawal symptoms can include:
- excessive sweating
- muscle weakness
Medically Supervised Barbiturate Detoxification
Individuals who abuse and become addicted to barbiturates will likely need the assistance of a medically supervised detox program to come off the drug safely. During detox, individuals will receive medical care to monitor vitals, such as heart and breathing rates. This ensures that individuals will remain safe as their body is cleared, or detoxified, of the substance.
It is important to note that detox is only the first step towards recovery, and is not an addiction cure. Although many people feel better physically after completing detox, they may still have intense psychological cravings for barbiturates, which is why inpatient treatment is typically recommended following a medically supervised barbiturate detox program.
Treatment Options For Barbiturate Abuse And Addiction
Barbiturates may cause both physical and psychological dependence, so it is essential that treatment for these conditions be comprehensive and work to address all aspects of an individual’s health.
Inpatient treatment often combines medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and behavioral therapies. In cases of severe barbiturate addiction, some individuals may be given less potent barbiturates or benzodiazepines to lessen their withdrawal symptoms and curb their cravings for the drug. Others may be given additional medications, such as antidepressants, to help stabilize their mood while going through treatment.
Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) are often used in individual and group settings. These therapies can help individuals learn about barbiturate abuse and addiction and coping mechanisms to manage these issues during and after treatment.