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Are Barbiturates Addictive?

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the medical community used barbiturates to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. Although it may have been an effective treatment in the past, current research explains the concerns with barbiturate usage and its risk of addiction. While barbiturates may have “a few specific indications, they are not commonly prescribed these days, having been largely suspended by benzodiazepines, which are much safer, although still potentially addictive.”

Barbiturate abuse is increasing among adolescents and adults in the United States. One reason barbiturates are abused is because of their ability to mask the stimulant effects from other party drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine. Because barbiturates have sedating effects, they are referred to as “downers.” Barbiturates are taken as a pill or injected in liquid form. Since these drugs are commonly abused and have an increased risk for addiction, they are classified as Schedule II, III, and IV depressants under the Controlled Substances Act. Barbiturates can be addictive, which is why they are prescribed sparingly nowadays.

How Do Barbiturates Work?

Barbiturates are a group of substances in the class of drugs called sedative-hypnotics due to the drugs’ ability to induce sleep, sedate the user, and decrease anxiety. Barbiturates work by depressing the central nervous system, which is why they are also classified as depressant drugs. Barbiturates increase the action of GABA (the inhibitory neurotransmitter) which inhibits the typical function of nerve cells in the user’s brain. Inhibiting the action of nerve cells at levels higher than normal is dangerous and can result in the body becoming accustomed to this level of activity and addicted to the sensation of being under the influence of barbiturates.

The Dangers of Barbiturate Abuse

While these drugs have a medical use, when they are used recreationally and in an unprescribed dose, there is an extreme risk for overdose and the likelihood of addiction. The concerning thing about barbiturates is that, even when given at therapeutic levels, physical and psychological dependence can develop. The risk of addiction is high because of the tolerance that barbiturate users build. A serious tolerance to barbiturates can develop within just two weeks. The risk of overdose and accidental death substantially increases with barbiturates because with these drugs, in particular, there is a very fine line between a safe dose and a dangerous, potentially fatal dose. The signs and symptoms of barbiturate overdose can include:

  • Trouble thinking
  • Cloudy consciousness
  • Fatigue
  • Poor judgment
  • Lack of coordination
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Slurred or slowed speech
  • Lethargy
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depression
  • Decreased respiration
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Decreased urine production
  • Decreased body temperature
  • Coma
  • Potential for death

There are also long-term effects from barbiturate abuse and overdose. One severe symptom is permanent kidney damage. People who use barbiturates for a month or longer may experience hallucinations, a high fever, and seizures after stopping use. When pregnant women take barbiturates during their pregnancy, there is a chance that their babies will be born addicted to barbiturates and suffer withdrawal symptoms.

Why Are Barbiturates Addictive?

People can get addicted to barbiturates as a result of physical and psychological dependence. For former users, physical dependency manifests as restlessness, increased anxiety, and trouble sleeping. Psychological dependence on barbiturates occurs when a user no longer feels like themselves without the drug and cannot function normally in society without it. Whether a user is experiencing physical or psychological dependence on barbiturates, the drug becomes debilitating and drives the users’ behaviors. Barbiturates can be highly addictive and “there is a high chance of becoming emotionally and physically dependent on them if a person takes them more than a couple of weeks.”

Barbiturate Withdrawal and Addiction Treatment

Dependence can be dangerous, making withdrawal complicated. Detox from barbiturates should be supported by medical professionals because both physical and psychological assistance is needed for ending addiction to barbiturates. While the physical withdrawal from barbiturates can subside after about two weeks with medical help, the psychological issues associated with drug use will linger for as long as it takes for the user to work through their emotions.

The recovery that takes place at Boardwalk Recovery Center addresses all aspects of a barbiturate addiction and specifically addresses psychological recovery. Committing to individual therapy, group therapy, process groups, step programs, and finding a community that inspires and supports a recovery mindset helps our clients succeed in recovery from addiction to any drug. Clients at our facility develop lifelong friendships and can grow together in sober living environments.

Life can be good again and we’d like to show you how.
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