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Definition

What is barbiturate abuse?

Barbiturates are sedative-hypnotic drugs that were once commonly used as sedatives or antianxiety medications. A physician must prescribe barbiturates; otherwise, their use is considered illicit. Among their limited uses, barbiturates are used to manage some seizure disorders as well as for pre-procedural sedation. In rarer instances, they are prescribed for the treatment of headache, anxiety and insomnia. However, their use in most areas of medicine has largely been supplanted by other safer medications.

Barbiturates are controlled substances due to the potential they pose for abuse, physical dependence, and addiction.

Some of the more common barbiturates include:

  • Luminal (phenobarbital).
  • Brevital (methohexital).
  • Seconal (secobarbital).
  • Butisol (butabarbital).
  • Fiorinal (butalbital).

Phenobarbital has a relatively narrow therapeutic range, which means the dose needs to be just right for it to be safe and effective. Those who take it to control seizures are regularly tested to see if the drug concentration in their bodies is within the right range. For those abusing barbiturates like phenobarbital, their likelihood of visiting a doctor to be tested for drug levels is extremely low. These users are at high risk of quickly boosting their concentration of the drug to toxic levels in their bodies if they regularly misuse the drug.

Even in the short term, barbiturates, if taken in excess, can quickly reach dangerous levels and exert potentially deadly effects. Also, because barbiturates are often taken with other drugs of abuse such as alcohol, narcotic painkillers, and even stimulants, the risk is even higher.

Some people abuse barbiturates because they desire the pleasant psychoactive effects of these drugs, which are similar to those of alcohol. These effects include making the user feel happy, relaxed, more talkative, and less inhibited.

Barbiturates can be swallowed in pill form, crushed and snorted, or injected intravenously.

Abusing barbiturates is extremely dangerous and can lead to severe short- and long-term physical and psychological symptoms, physical dependence, and accidental death.

How common is barbiturate abuse?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of barbiturate abuse?

The common symptoms of barbiturate abuse are:

  • Difficulty thinking
  • Poor judgment
  • Slow and shallow breathing
  • Slow talking
  • Lethargy
  • Extreme sleepiness or even coma
  • Poor coordination
  • Inability to walk properly, staggering or stumbling

If a person uses too much of this drug for too long, they can simply cease to function at an expected or efficient level. They can be irritable and have little memory. They will lack awareness of their surroundings, their problems and dangers.

Miscarriages and birth defects are also signs of barbiturate abuse.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you believe someone has taken barbiturates inappropriately, take him or her to a hospital emergency department for evaluation by a doctor. Soon after taking barbiturates, a person may only be drowsy or seem intoxicated, but more serious symptoms can develop quickly and unpredictably.

If the person is drowsy or you are unable to arouse the person (if he or she seems to be in a coma), call for emergency medical transport and immediate treatment in the ambulance.

Bring any leftover pills, pill bottles, or other medicines the person may have taken to the hospital with you.

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes barbiturate abuse?

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.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for barbiturate abuse?

There are many risk factors for barbiturate abuse, such as:

  • History of substance abuse in one’s family
  • Personal history of substance abuse
  • Personality traits such as impulsivity or a desire for novel situations
  • Being prescribed barbiturates
  • Presence of other substance use disorders

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is barbiturate abuse diagnosed?

A urine test can readily identify barbiturate use. Diagnosis in a hospital emergency department, however, concentrates on diagnosing other potential reasons for the person to be drowsy, such as other drugs taken, head injury, stroke, infection, or shock. These diagnostic efforts take place while the person is being treated.

In general, the person will have an IV started and blood will be drawn. An ECG (electrocardiogram) will be performed to evaluate the person’s heart rhythm. Other diagnostic efforts depend on the specific situation.

How is barbiturate abuse treated?

The treatment of barbiturate abuse or overdose is generally supportive. The amount of support required depends on the person’s symptoms.

If the person is drowsy but awake and can swallow and breathe without difficulty, the treatment may consist of just watching the person closely.

If the person is not breathing, a breathing machine is used to ensure the person can breathe well until the drugs have worn off.

Most people receive a liquid form of activated charcoal to bind to any drugs in their stomach. This may be done by placing a tube into the stomach (through the nose or mouth) or by having the person drink it.

Most people are admitted to the hospital or are observed in the emergency department for a number of hours, and sometimes may need to be admitted to the hospital for further monitoring and treatment. Other treatments depend on the specific situation.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage barbiturate abuse?

There is no home treatment for barbiturate abuse. If you believe someone has taken barbiturates inappropriately, take him or her to the hospital for evaluation by a doctor.

Barbiturates have a narrow therapeutic index and can cause coma or death if taken inappropriately. This is especially true in children and in elderly persons.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: November 6, 2017 | Last Modified: November 6, 2017

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