Barbiturates Abuse Causes, Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

No one experiences barbiurate addiction the same way as someone else. Understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of barbiturate addiction is a key component toward starting the recovery journey.

Understanding Barbiturate Addiction

Learn about barbiturate addiction

Barbiturates (often referred to as “downers,” “yellow jackets,” “reds” on the street) are a group of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics which produce anxiety-decreasing and sleep-inducing effects. While not as commonly discussed as other substances of abuse, barbiturate abuse carries significant risks as the dose that causes sedation is very similar to the dose that can lead to coma and death. Barbiturates also have a very high potential for addiction. Physical and psychological addiction to barbiturates can occur after taking the medications for as short of a period as one month. Using barbiturates daily for one month can cause major changes in the structure and function of the brain. Withdrawing from barbiturate abuse can cause major life-threatening symptoms

Barbiturates were first used in medicine in the early 1900’s and became popular as anxiety, insomnia, and seizure disorder treatments during the 1950’s and 1960’s. As the popularity of barbiturates grew, so did barbiturate abuse. Use of barbiturates declined dramatically as a group of drugs called the benzodiazepines were developed. Benzodiazepines have largely replaced barbiturates in medical practice as they are much safer medications used to treat similar disorders.

There are a number of types of barbiturates, differing primarily in how long the effects of the drug last. Some last up to two days while others are fast-acting and effects last only several minutes. Barbiturates can be injected but are generally ingested in pill form.

While a number of prescriptions for barbiturates is nearly non-existent, street abuse of barbiturates has been on the rise over the past ten years. Many people use barbiturates to counteract the symptoms of other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamines, which cause stimulating effects. People similarly abuse barbiturates to get high, comparable to the high caused by alcohol intoxication.

One of the dangers of abusing barbiturates is that barbiturates have a narrow therapeutic-to-toxic window, meaning that the difference between a dose that causes drowsiness or a “high” and a dose that causes death is relatively small. Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, and Judy Garland each died from an overdose of barbiturates. Barbiturates are also extremely addicting.

Barbiturate overdose often involves the use of many drugs at once, especially combining barbiturates with alcohol, opiates, hydrocodone, or oxycodone. This combination is especially dangerous as these drugs all suppress breathing. This is considered a medical emergency, even though the initial symptoms may be less severe (drowsiness or intoxication), more serious symptoms can frequently develop in an unpredictable manner.

As barbiturates have a very narrow therapeutic window, life-threatening side effects are possible, especially in special populations. Children, who are smaller and weigh less than adults can be killed by even small doses of barbiturates. The elderly are more sensitive to barbiturates and can lapse into a coma even using small doses of barbiturates.

It’s vital to know that one of the things that make barbiturate abuse so dangerous is that the same dose that causes drowsiness and sedation in some may be poisonous and cause death in others. This is one of the many reasons that barbiturate addiction is such a life-threatening condition.

There is no way of treating barbiturate abuse at home; immediate hospitalization is necessary so that detoxification from barbiturates is done in a safe and controlled manner. After the person seeks medical attention, he or she will require longer term treatment and management for barbiturates in an appropriate treatment setting.

People who are addicted to barbiturates, even if they have not overdosed, need prolonged medical and therapeutic interventions. The first step for barbiturate treatment is to detoxify the person who is addicted until they are free of the drug. Prompt medical care and proper follow-up therapy are necessary to ensure the person remains clean and sober.


Barbiturate addiction statistics

While barbiturate abuse is not as common as it once was, about 9% of Americans will abuse a barbiturate at some point in their lifetime. One in five children grows up in a household where barbiturates or another substance is abused.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Barbiturate addiction and co-occurring disorders

  • Other addictions
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Stimulant use and abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Conduct disorders
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Schizophrenia

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for barbiturate addiction

As is the case with most drug addictions, there is not one specific cause for barbiturate addiction. Rather a combination of factors can lead to a person developing an addiction.

Genetic: Individuals who have a family member with an addiction to barbiturates or another substance of abuse are at greater risk for developing an addiction in their lifetime. While not always a guarantee that a person will develop an addiction, there is a correlation between close family members and addiction.

Biological: Some researchers have theorized that certain individuals may be born lacking proper amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is released during pleasurable experiences and it has been postulated that perhaps some people “self-medicate” for this dopamine deficiency by abusing drugs or alcohol to correct this deficiency.

Environmental: The increase of people abusing barbiturates may be due to the rise of stimulant usage as barbiturates have long been used to counteract the side effects of stimulants. Also, people today may not recall the deaths and dangerous effects of barbiturate use that was widely publicized in the 1970’s.

Psychological: People who abuse barbiturates may have other addiction problems or mental illnesses and use barbiturates to counteract the symptoms of these disorders. Many people who have mental illnesses do abuse drugs and alcohol.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of barbiturates addiction

Barbiturates are often called “brain relaxers,” similar to the way in which people describe the feeling of drinking alcohol. The effects of barbiturates and alcohol, pain medications, sleeping pills, and antihistamines are comparable and cause similar symptoms. Signs and symptoms of barbiturate abuse include:


  • Euphoria
  • Pleasure
  • Relaxation
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Overall sense of well-being
  • Feeling high or intoxicated
  • Mood swings


  • Behaving as though they are intoxicated
  • Poor concentration
  • Acting uncharacteristically bold
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Behaving recklessly
  • Acting violently
  • Unable to fulfill work, home or school responsibilities
  • Talking slowly
  • Slurred, hard to understand speech


  • Physical dependence
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Frequent infections, especially in the respiratory tract
  • Tremors
  • Insomnia
  • High fevers
  • Cardiovascular shock
  • Kidney problems
  • Seizures
  • Loss of coordination of large muscles
  • Staggering
  • Breathing shallowly
  • Respiratory depression
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Coma
  • Death


  • Addiction
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • Memory loss
  • Impairment in thinking
  • Paranoia
  • Combativeness
  • Delirium


Effects of barbiturate addiction

  • Loss of memory
  • Impaired thinking
  • Respiratory depression
  • Women who take barbiturates who are pregnant may give birth to addicted newborns
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Coma
  • Death

Withdrawl Effects

Withdrawl effects of barbiturate addiction

The effects of withdrawal from barbiturates can quickly progress from mild to severe, so immediate medical treatment is fundamental. Barbiturate withdrawal should only occur under the close supervision of a trained medical staff in a hospital-like setting. Effects of withdrawal from barbiturates can include:

  • Tremors and shakiness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Extremely high body temperature
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory depression
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Coma
  • Death