Barbiturates are class of drugs that have the effect of depressing, or slowing down, the functions of the central nervous system.
They are often referred to as CNS depressants, and they share many qualities with the newer class of drugs, benzodiazepines. Barbiturates were originally designed to treat anxiety, to be used as aids to assist with withdrawal from alcohol in chronic alcoholics, to control seizures, to control muscle spasms, and to initiate sleep.
Barbiturates are most commonly categorized by their duration of action or by their half-life. A drug’s half-life refers to the time it takes the normal metabolic processes in one system to reduce the level of the drug in the system by half of its previous level. Given that classification, some of the more common barbiturates include:
- Shorter-acting barbiturates, such as Pentothal (thiopental), Seconal (secobarbital), Nembutal (phenobarbital), Soneryl or Butisol (butabarbital), and Amytal (amobarbital).
- Medium-acting barbiturates, such as Lotusate (talbutal) and Fiorinal or Fioricet (butalbital).
- Long-acting barbiturates, such as Luminal (phenobarbital), Mebaral (mephobarbital), and Mebaral (methylphenobarbital).
Some of the longer-acting barbiturates may have half-lives of greater than 24 hours, and this can be a particularly problematic issue as the ascertainable effects of the drug will wear off more quickly than the drug is eliminated from the body. This means that habitual users may use more of the drug while high levels of the drug remain in the system. This may lead to the increased potential for overdose. Moreover, the abuse of barbiturates most often occurs with abuse of other drugs, such as alcohol or narcotic painkillers. This leads to an even more serious potential for overdose on either drug.
Signs of Barbiturate Abuse
According the book Barbiturates in the book series Drugs: The Straight Facts, the side effects from barbiturate abuse can be categorized into three general classes. It is highly unlikely that any person will display all of the symptoms; however, most individuals will display a combination of these three classes of effects:
- Physiological effects: These effects include sedation, drowsiness, slurred speech, impaired motor functioning, issues with gait and balance, depressed breathing, depressed heartbeat, changes in blood pressure, sweating, decreased body temperature, insomnia, and the potential for unconsciousness.
- Cognitive and psychological effects: These effects include disorientation, confusion, slowed thinking, issues with memory, mood swings, issues with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and the presence of hallucinations or delusions.
- Effects related to social functioning: These include decreased activity or interest in things that the person once enjoyed doing, isolation from social events, a marked decrease in social interactions, the development of disruptive behaviors that interfere with one’s relationships, and a sense of apathy regarding relationships with others.
The use of barbiturates with other drugs will increase the potential for the severity and number of symptoms an individual may display. Barbiturates are also candidates to produce both abuse and physical dependence in individuals. Physical dependence consists of the symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.
Tolerance occurs when those taking barbiturates need increasingly higher doses or amounts of the barbiturate to produce the effects they experienced with lower doses previously. Individuals will need increasingly more of the drug to ward off withdrawal symptoms as well.
Withdrawal symptoms are generally negative physical and psychological symptoms that occur when people either stop taking the drug abruptly or cut down the dosage abruptly. Withdrawal symptoms from barbiturates include excessive sweating, irritability, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, sleepiness, fever, chills, tremors, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety, and the potential to experience seizures, which can lead to fatal complications.