Barbiturate Addiction and Treatment Options

Barbiturates are sedative-hypnotic drugs that were originally used to treat anxiety, seizure disorders, and insomnia. However, as a side effect, the drug can produce mild euphoria and intense calming effects that make it easy to abuse. As a result, they’re no longer commonly prescribed.

What are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are a class of drugs that have a depressing effect on the central nervous system, slowing down essential bodily functions including heart rate and breathing. This effect is what underlies its calming function which is beneficial for treating disorders such as anxiety, seizure, and insomnia.

Barbiturates are typically subdivided according to their half-life, or the time it takes to eliminate roughly half the dosage from the system. Barbiturates exist in short-acting form, medium-acting form, and long-acting form. Long-acting barbiturates, such as Luminal and Mebaral, may be the most dangerous because continued use may compound the drug’s effects if the previous dose has not yet been eliminated from the body.

This class of drugs was largely phased out for medical use in favor of drugs such as benzodiazepines, which have fewer adverse side effects. Nonetheless, its potential for abuse and addiction is high, making it a substance of concern for those who have a history of substance abuse.

Commonly Used Barbiturates

The most well-known and commonly abused barbiturates include:

Amytal (amobarbital sodium)

Amytal, or amobarbital, can be used clinically as a pre-surgical anesthetic or sleep aid. However, the way it functions prevents users from getting deep REM sleep, which is the most restorative. As a result, it has been largely phased out for safer and more effective sleep aids. Amytal’s characteristic blue pills are referred to on the street as blue heaven, blue devil, or blue velvet.

Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium)

Nembutal was also mostly used as a pre-surgical sedative or sleep aid, though it can also be effective in treating seizures. However, pentobarbital is no longer prescribed in the US due to its abuse potential. Instead, it is used largely as an end-of-life drug in places where euthanasia is legal. Used illicitly, it may be known as nembies or yellowjackets.

Seconal (secobarbital sodium)

Like nembutal, Seconal is almost exclusively used for euthanasia. However, it was once prescribed for seizures, insomnia, and as a surgical anesthetic. Seconal, or secobarbital, has a very high potential for tolerance, meaning that over a short period of time, higher doses are required to achieve the same effect. This is a major factor in what makes Seconal so addictive.

Luminal (phenobarbital)

Luminal, clinically known as phenobarbital, is one of the most popular barbiturates, and it is still used around the world to manage seizures, anxiety, as well as to manage barbiturate withdrawal from other drugs. Because it is so widely used, it is more readily available for illicit use. It is known by the street names goof balls or purple hearts.

Signs of Barbiturate Abuse

Barbiturates carry the risk of unpleasant and serious side effects that can affect many different essential systems in the body. Signs of barbiturate abuse can include physiological effects, cognitive and psychological effects, and impaired social functioning.

Physiological signs of barbiturate abuse are typically the most commonly experienced. These include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Impaired motor function
  • Imbalance
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Slowed or depressed breathing
  • Slowing down of heart rate and blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Decrease in body temperature
  • Insomnia
  • Coma

Some cognitive and psychological effects may occur, especially with long-term use. These include:

  • Memory loss
  • Agitation or irritation
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Slowed thinking and difficulty concentrating
  • Mood swings
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions

Social functioning disturbances as a result of barbiturate use include:

  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Lack of interest in hobbies or other enjoyable activities
  • Decrease in social interactions
  • Apathy about relationships
  • Behaviors that can negatively affect relationships

Dangers of Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose

As discussed, some barbiturates have an especially high risk for intoxication or overdose because their effects may wear out before the drug has been fully eliminated. This increases the risk that someone will take another dose that results in toxicity. Some barbiturates also carry a high risk of overdose because they quickly lead to tolerance. Once tolerance has developed, individuals may take more and more of the substance to try to achieve the same effect. In combination with withdrawal, tolerance to barbiturate use can easily lead to addiction. Withdrawal symptoms may come on 8 to 15 hours after the last dose, which may motivate further use.

In addition to these dangers, barbiturates are often used in conjunction with other drugs such as alcohol and opioids like heroin. The risk of overdose is significantly increased when barbiturates are used with other drugs because the effects are compounded and unpredictable.

When intoxication occurs, some common symptoms may present including:

  • Slurred speech
  • Clouded or foggy thinking
  • Lack of balance
  • Nausea
  • Muscle weakness
  • Decreased urination
  • Slowed heart rate

Signs of overdose are more dangerous and typically noticeable. If overdose is suspected, the incident should be treated as a medical emergency and you should call 911. These signs include:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Weak pulse
  • Rapid pulse even at rest
  • Respiratory failure
  • Coma

Barbiturate Withdrawal

Withdrawal occurs when one stops taking barbiturates suddenly or use is dramatically cut down. Within hours, this can cause a host of unpleasant side effects as the body struggles to function without the substance. Withdrawal is typically worse the longer and more severe the addiction is, since it will create a bigger shock to the system when barbiturates are no longer used. Withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Low blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Hallucinations
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Seizures

Handling Barbiturate Overdose

Barbiturate overdose occurs when a person consumes a toxic amount of barbiturates or a dangerous combination of barbiturates and some other substance. Because this can have a severely depressing effect on key systems of the body including respiration and circulation, barbiturate overdose can be deadly. Medical professionals can reduce the risk of death, and they should be consulted immediately if overdose is suspected.

It is important to report other substances that may be present, as this can guide paramedics in treatment. For instance, if an opiate was taken concurrently, then a drug like naloxone may be used to reverse its effects and help a person regain consciousness.

Barbiturate Detoxification

Because barbiturate withdrawal can be so severe and unpleasant, supervised detoxification is always recommended. Medically supervised detox occurs under 24-hour medical care at an inpatient facility. During this time, the dose of the drug is slowly tapered off to prevent severe side effects. Withdrawal can also be managed at the facility using medication that can reduce distressing symptoms such as nausea or fever.

Barbiturate Abuse Treatment

To be successful, barbiturate abuse treatment should occur as soon as possible. The longer a person uses barbiturates, the more tolerance and higher chance of overdose is possible. At a drug rehabilitation facility such as Riverwalk Ranch, a barbiturate abuse treatment plan can be devised according to key individual factors. These include co-substance abuse, duration of addiction, severity of addiction, physical health, and psychological illness among others.

Treatment typically combines medical attention with behavioral therapies, beginning with medically supervised detox. After the drug is safely eliminated from the body, an individual is free to explore potential mental health issues that may be associated with addiction. This process involves one-on-one therapy in conjunction with peer support groups. Through these behavioral interventions, one can develop skills needed to resist substance abuse and gain an overall sense of wellbeing.

Barbiturate Addiction FAQs

Why are barbiturates not often prescribed anymore?

Over time, doctors have stopped prescribing barbiturates because they have a very high potential for abuse and because there are now safer alternatives on the market with fewer side effects.

Can withdrawal symptoms be life-threatening?

In addition to being difficult to overcome, withdrawal can also be lethal. Changes in physiological functions such as blood pressure can lead to death. Suicide as a result of withdrawal-induced depression is also a common cause of barbiturate-related death.

Are there long-term effects of prolonged barbiturate use?

Prolonged use may be associated with a decline in cognitive ability, health problems including heart and liver damage, and damage to the central nervous system.


NIDA. 2018, March 6. Prescription CNS Depressants DrugFacts. Retrieved from on 2023, February 7

Skibiski J, Abdijadid S. Barbiturates. [Updated 2022 Nov 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from:

Orbán PT. Barbiturate abuse. J Med Ethics. 1976 Jun;2(2):63-7. PMID: 940139; PMCID: PMC2495124.

Barbiturate Addiction Recovery at Riverwalk Ranch

A Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan Area Addiction Treatment Center

At Riverwalk Ranch, we can treat barbiturate addiction as part of our comprehensive addiction treatment services. Located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, our professionals use only effective treatments to help you safely and comfortably begin your journey toward recovery. Our facilities provide a safe haven to detox, surrounded by medical professionals, addiction specialists, and other like-minded individuals all working toward a healthier drug-free life.

If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction to barbiturates, don’t hesitate to contact our addiction treatment center today at (877) 863-3869. Whether Texas is home or you’re looking for a fresh start in a new environment, Riverwalk Ranch can provide a therapeutic and supportive home for you. Everyone deserves a happy and healthy life free from addiction, and we are committed to helping you overcome barbiturate addiction in order to get you there.

Take the First Step

We accept most insurances

...and many more.