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Barbiturate abuse

Barbiturates are sedative medications sometimes prescribed for insomnia. With barbiturates, there is a small difference between the prescribed dose and an overdose amount.

Barbiturates used to be prescribed for more conditions before concerns were raised about their safety and misuse.

Types of barbiturates

There are many different barbiturates. The primary difference among them is how long their effects last. The effects of some of the long-acting drugs may last up to two days. Others are very short acting. Their effects last only a few minutes.

Barbiturates can be injected into the veins or muscles, but they are usually taken in pill form. The street names of commonly abused barbiturates describe the desired effect of the drug or the colour and markings on the actual pill.

Barbiturate abuse symptoms

In general, barbiturates can be thought of as so-called brain relaxers. Alcohol is also a brain relaxer. The effects of barbiturates and alcohol are very similar. Painkillers, sleeping pills, and antihistamines also cause symptoms similar to those of barbiturates.

People who abuse barbiturates use them to obtain a “high,” which is described as being similar to alcohol intoxication, or to counteract the effects of stimulant drugs.

  • In small doses, the person who abuses barbiturates feels drowsy, uninhibited, and intoxicated.
  • In higher doses, the user staggers as if drunk, develops slurred speech, and is confused.
  • At even higher doses, the person is unable to be aroused (coma) and may stop breathing. Death is possible.

The difference between the dose causing drowsiness and one causing death may be small. In the medical profession, this difference is called a narrow therapeutic-to-toxic range. This is the reason why barbiturates are dangerous. It is also why barbiturates are not often prescribed today.

In addition to having a narrow therapeutic range, barbiturates are also addictive. If taken daily for longer than about one month, the brain develops a need for the barbiturate, which causes severe symptoms if the drug is withheld.

Symptoms of withdrawal or abstinence include tremors, difficulty sleeping, and agitation. These symptoms can become worse, resulting in life-threatening symptoms, including hallucinations, high temperature, and seizures.

Pregnant women taking barbiturates can cause their baby to become addicted, and the newborn may have withdrawal symptoms.

When to seek medical care

  • A doctor cannot give appropriate treatment for barbiturate abuse over the telephone. Observation in a hospital accident and emergency (A&E) department is necessary.
  • If you believe someone has taken barbiturates inappropriately, take him or her to a hospital A&E 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 999 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.

WebMD Medical Reference

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