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What Drugs Are Barbiturates?

There are many different types of barbiturates that can lead to substance abuse disorders due to their high potency for addiction.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are highly addictive medications with minimal interventions in case of an overdose. You can avoid unknowingly abusing these barbiturates by understanding how they work and how they affect your brain. Some common barbiturates include Valium and Ativan.

Barbiturates are depressants derived from barbituric acid for medical use in order to treat insomnia, anxiety, muscle spasms, and to help prevent seizures. They come in the form of multi-coloured controlled pills classified as ultrashort, short, intermediate, or long-acting medicines.1

Prescription Barbiturates

Doctors can prescribe barbiturates as sedatives, hypnotics, anesthetics, or anticonvulsants. Some other common barbiturate prescriptions include Florina, Pentothal, Seconal, or Nembutal.

Different types of barbiturates affect the central nervous system in different ways; you may be sedated mildly by the barbiturate or severely by falling into a coma. It can also lead to death if you overdose. Some street names for barbiturates include barbs, blockbusters, downers, rainbow, Christmas trees, goof balls, and yellow jackets.

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Types of Barbiturates

How Do Barbiturates Work?

Barbiturates' effects on the brain inhibit and depress the central nervous system. Your brain has an inhibitory neurotransmitter called the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) system. When you consume barbiturates, your brain experiences more chemicals that have a sedative effect, ranging from mild relaxation to being unconscious or falling into a coma, depending on the dosage size.

It alters your brain's functions by making the cells resistant to nerve impulses. When you swallow barbiturate pills or barbiturate medications, the effects generally set in after half an hour and can last anywhere from four to sixteen hours.

What Are Barbiturates Prescribed For?

Physicians can prescribe different types of barbiturates depending on their patient’s condition. In some cases – and in larger doses – it has even been used as a lethal injection in executions or as sodium amytal, also known as "truth serum." Your doctor may prescribe barbiturates as a way to help with:

  • Seizures and epilepsy
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • As a type of pre-anesthesia

The Most Common Types of Barbiturates

Many different types of barbiturates are prescription medications. Here are some of the most common prescription barbiturates and their uses.


Phenobarbital is a long-acting barbituric acid derivative with antipsychotic characteristics. Phenobarbital binds to and activates your GABA receptors and copies the inhibitory actions of GABA in your brain. When the GABA receptors are activated, your brain experiences an increased frequency of chloride channel openings, membrane hyperpolarization, synapse inhibition, and decreased neuronal excitement.2

Phenobarbital, phenobarbitone, phenobarbital, or the trade name Luminal, is a barbiturate medication recommended by the World Health Organization for treating certain types of epilepsy in developing countries.


You may be given secobarbital on a short-term basis to treat insomnia or relieve anxiety before surgery. This barbiturate works by slowing activity in your brain. Secobarbital comes as a capsule that you swallow. While secobarbital relieves anxiety before surgery, it usually takes about one to two hours to take effect.


Amobarbital is a member of the class of barbiturates that exhibit sedative and hypnotic properties. It is commonly referred to as "sodium amytal" or "truth serum." Some areas still use it to help get information out of people during interrogation sessions.

Amobarbital can slow the central nervous system so that concentration becomes difficult. It’s classified as a short-acting to an intermediate-acting drug.3


Pentobarbital is a short-acting barbiturate that is most useful as a sedative and hypnotic but doesn't perform well as an anti-anxiety drug. A doctor may prescribe it to induce sleep if their patient has insomnia, rather than for sedation. Patients may suffer respiratory arrest if they use high doses of pentobarbital, such as Nembutal.

What Are the Side Effects of Barbiturates?

Those who abuse barbiturates are at a higher risk of developing a substance abuse disorder, and may even suffer a fatal overdose.

The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS) estimates that there are more than three thousand barbiturate overdose deaths a year in the United States. 42% of these deaths are intentional overdoses, and the remaining 58% are accidental overdoses.4

Usually, users will exceed the prescribed dosage by mistake, or by mixing it with alcohol or other medications. Side effects from the drug are impacted by users’ weight, age, tolerance level, how often one uses the drug, and the dosage amount one consumes.

Common Side Effects of Barbiturates

Some of the common physical side effects that you may observe include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Nausea
  • Sedation
  • Skin rash
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain

Severe Side Effects of Barbiturates

When someone takes larger doses of barbiturates, they can experience more severe effects, such as:

  • Abnormally slow breathing
  • Coma
  • Confusion
  • Fainting
  • Hallucinations
  • Temporary breathing cessation

Rare Side Effects of Barbiturates

A few people may experience other effects not experienced by everyone else after using barbiturates. Some of the barbiturates' long-term effects that are also rare include:

  • Agranulocytosis
  • Erythroderma
  • Liver injury
  • Megaloblastic anemia
  • Stevens-Johnson syndrome
Types of Barbiturates

What Other Drugs Interact With Barbiturates?

When using barbiturates with other medications, one needs to be cautious, as barbiturates speed up the breakdown of the other drugs, making them ineffective. Some prescription medications that interact with barbiturates include:

  • Atazanavir (Reyataz)
  • Boceprevir (Victrelis)
  • Lurasidone (Latuda)
  • Ranolazine (Ranexa)
  • Telaprevir (Incivek)
  • Voriconazole (Vfend)
  • Ritonavir
  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Conazeritonavir pam (Klonopin)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Zaleplon (Sonata)

Are Barbiturates Safe?

You may use barbiturates safely by strictly adhering to the prescription dosage, or by following the regulations during surgery. Purchasing barbiturates over the counter or through illegal ways means they will be more dangerous, as their dosage size isn’t controlled. This can quickly lead to a barbiturate overdose.

Are Barbiturates Controlled Substances?

Barbiturates are now Schedule II, III, and IV controlled drugs in the United States, depending on their form and use. The drugs are controlled strictly due to their potential for physical and psychological dependence and abuse. Tolerance, psychological support, and physical dependence may occur, especially following prolonged use of high doses of barbiturates.

Signs of a barbiturate overdose include disorientation, impaired judgement, slurred or slowed speech, shallow breathing, and loss of consciousness.

Get Help for Barbiturate Addiction At Boardwalk Recovery Center

If you or a loved one are suffering from barbiturate addiction, Boardwalk Recovery Center can help you by providing addiction recovery programs and interventions that will start you off and help you maintain your recovery from different types of barbiturates. Get help for barbiturate substance abuse at Boardwalk Recovery Center today.
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