Health Effects of Barbiturates

Health Effects of Barbiturates

Barbiturates are a class of medications that reduce agitation, irritability and anxiety by slowing down normal function in your central nervous system. Along with a newer class of medications called benzodiazepines, they form of a group of drugs known collectively as sedative-hypnotics. Benzodiazepines are generally safer than barbiturates, and doctors tend to prescribe these newer medications whenever possible; however, significant numbers of people still receive barbiturates during medical treatment, or abuse them outside of an appropriate medical context. Barbiturate use can produce a variety of minor, serious or possibly fatal changes in your health, including overdose and the onset of physical dependence or addiction.

Barbiturate Background

Barbiturates were invented in the mid-1800s and first saw medical use in the early 1900s. Forms of these drugs developed since that time include phenobarbital (Luminal), secobarbital (Seconal), pentobarbital (Nembutal) and amobarbital (Amytal). Doctors typically prescribe these and other barbiturates in pill form; however, injectable forms also exist. Widespread medical use of the various barbiturates began in the 1960s and reached its peak in the 1970s before benzodiazepines started appearing in U.S. markets. During barbiturates’ heyday, abuse of these medications was a major concern among public health officials. Although abuse levels dropped for decades when barbiturates became less popular, they ticked upward again at the start of the 2000s.

Basic Effects

When barbiturates enter the body, they dissolve quite rapidly in the presence of internal fats called lipids. Because of this property, the University of Washington explains, all types of these drugs pass readily through the blood-brain barrier and come in contact with both the brain and spinal cord, which together form the central nervous system. When low to moderate doses of barbiturates interact with this system, their suppressing effects produce results that can closely resemble alcohol intoxication. The effects of central nervous system suppression can also lead to slowed breathing, lowered heart rate, lowered blood pressure and reduced periods of an essential stage of sleep called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

Paradoxically, when barbiturates interact with the central nervous system, they can also produce energizing system changes that mimic certain effects of drugs called stimulants. The effects of some barbiturate drugs last for a few minutes to an hour, while others have effects that can last for up to 48 hours.

Uncommon Side Effects

In relatively uncommon circumstances, use of barbiturates can trigger side effects such as depression, confused thinking and unusual agitation or excitement. Rarer potential side effects include abnormal fatigue, bleeding, bruising, muscle pain, skin rash, joint pain, chest pain, chest tightness, wheezing, mouth ulcers, facial swelling, sore throat and skin redness or scaling. Chronic barbiturate users can experience additional side effects such as jaundice, bone tenderness or pain, appetite loss and weight loss.


In terms of their potential toxic effects, barbiturates have what’s known as a very narrow therapeutic index or therapeutic range; this means that doses of these drugs that produce positive treatment results typically don’t differ very much from doses that can trigger a toxic, potentially fatal reaction called overdose. Doctors who prescribe barbiturates typically work hard to prevent any toxic reactions. Still overdose can occur, especially in patients who don’t follow their prescription guidelines, take barbiturates without a prescription, or take a barbiturate in combination with alcohol, benzodiazepines or additional barbiturate drugs.

Potential symptoms of a barbiturate overdose include extreme sleepiness, sleep disruptions, extreme confusion, extreme muscle weakness, decreased or absent muscle reflexes, slurred or garbled speech, unusually high or low body temperature, thought impairment, abnormal eye movements (nystagmus) and breathing that appears abnormally shallow, slow or labored. In the most severe cases, the condition can lead to coma and death.

Dependence and Addiction

Benzodiazepines were developed, in part, because barbiturate use carries such high risks for the onset of physical dependence. Physically dependent people take a given drug long enough for their bodies to adapt to the drug’s presence and treat it like an everyday event. When this situation occurs, abrupt removal of the drug creates symptoms of drug withdrawal. In barbiturate users, these symptoms commonly include stomach distress, nausea, sleeping difficulties, seizures, anxiety, and hallucinations. Barbiturate users can also develop psychological dependence, a mental state separate from the actual physical effects of drug use. In addition, barbiturate users can develop full-blown addictions. Addiction is marked by recurring or persistent preoccupation with a drug, as well as lifestyle changes that center on obtaining and using a drug. Typically, active addicts make and continue these lifestyle changes even when their behaviors damage their personal, social, and professional relationships.

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