What Are Barbiturates?

Medically Reviewed

Barbiturates are typically used to treat anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and seizures.

Barbiturates are a type of drug that depresses the central nervous system.

The drugs are typically used to treat anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and seizures.

Your surgeon may also administer a barbiturate shortly before surgery to relieve anxiety or tension.

The first barbiturates were made in Germany during the 1860s. In 1912, the widely used barbiturate phenobarbital was introduced.

Other barbiturates include:

Today, barbiturates aren't prescribed as often as they were in the past because of the availability of newer drugs such as benzodiazepines, which don't pose as many safety concerns.

Barbiturates can be injected into muscles or veins, but they're usually taken orally.

Other Uses for Barbiturates

Barbiturates are used in high doses for performing physician-assisted suicide in states where that is legal.

They're also sometimes used along with a muscle relaxant for euthanasia or capital punishment by lethal injection.

Barbiturate Side Effects

Common side effects of barbiturates include:

Barbiturate 'High' and Abuse

Barbiturates can be habit-forming and addictive.

People who abuse barbiturates use them to get a "high" that's described as being similar to alcohol intoxication.

Some people also abuse these medicines to counteract the effects of stimulant drugs such as methamphetamine or cocaine.

Barbiturate abuse is very dangerous, because an overdose can lead to coma or death.

Barbiturate Withdrawal

You may experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking barbiturates.

Symptoms of barbiturate withdrawal include:

  • Tremors and shaking
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty sleeping

Your doctor will probably advise you to stop taking the drugs gradually over a period of time.

Barbiturates and Pregnancy

Barbiturates can harm an unborn baby. Pregnant women shouldn't take these medicines unless a doctor says otherwise.

These drugs do pass into breast milk and cause drowsiness and difficulty breathing in the breastfeeding infant.

Talk to your doctor if you are breastfeeding before taking a barbiturate.

Barbiturate Overdose

It's important to take the correct dose of a barbiturate medicine, because even a small overdose can lead to coma or death.

Symptoms of barbiturate intoxication and overdose include:

  • Drowsiness or coma
  • Altered consciousness
  • Difficulty thinking
  • Faulty judgement
  • Coordination problems
  • Shallow breathing
  • Slow or slurred speech
  • Sluggishness

If you suspect an overdose, contact a poison control center or go to an emergency room immediately.

You can get in touch with a poison control center at (800) 222-1222.

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