Barbiturate Addiction Treatment Resources

Barbiturate Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment Resources

Barbiturates are a class of sedative-hypnotic drugs utilized in the treatment of conditions such as sleeping disorders, seizure disorders, and neonatal withdrawal, among others[1]. Barbiturates were once heavily utilized in medical settings for their ability to induce drowsiness and deep sleep, but have largely been replaced as a tool for pre-anesthesia and anxiety reduction, though they are still prescribed for specific medical conditions.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates act as a sedative by depressing the activity of the central nervous system (CNS). They work by enhancing the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that inhibits brain activity, leading to relaxation, drowsiness, and a reduction in perceived anxiety. These CNS depressants are also dangerous, addictive, and potentially fatal when misused, with even a slight overdose able to result in a coma or death[2].

Also known as barbs, downers, tranquilizers, and red devils, barbiturates can come in various forms, including tablets, capsules, and liquid injectables. They can be either short, immediate, or long-acting in nature, and are presently classified as Schedule II, III, and IV depressants under the current Controlled Substances Act[3], depending on the specific onset of action.

According to statistics released from a national survey in 2018, almost six million Americans over the age of 12 reported misusing sedative-based drugs, per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)[4]

Side Effects of Barbiturates

Barbiturate misuse produces varied effects on the body and mind, which may include temporary euphoria, impaired coordination and judgment, and respiratory depression. Higher doses may cause impairment of memory, paranoia, and loss of coordination, along with potential death.

Ongoing usage can also lead to the development of tolerance and increase the risk for withdrawal complications, as these drugs possess a high level of abuse liability[5]. Additional concerns may also arise from concurrent use of other depressants (such as alcohol), substances, or prescribed medications, as this can dangerously slow the CNS or cause the liver to process other medicines more quickly.

How Are Barbiturates Taken?

Typically, barbiturates are taken by either swallowing a pill or injecting into the veins or muscles in their liquid form. Prescriptions are administered in both forms, though injections for short-acting barbiturates are usually administered into large portions of muscle to avoid any potential issues with necrosis at the injection site[6]. Barbiturates remain in the system for an extended period of time when injected, increasing the potential for abuse and dependence.

Misusing short-acting barbiturates in any form is particularly dangerous, as they can rapidly slow the CNS and brain activity, causing heart and brain disruptions.

Barbiturate Quick Reference

Barbiturate Quick Reference

Drug Category


Commercial & Street Names

Barbs, BlockBusters, Christmas Trees, Goof Balls, Pinks, Red Devils, Reds & Blues, Yellow Jackets

DEA Schedule

Schedules II, III, and IV


Pill, injection

Statistics on Barbiturate Use, Misuse, and Addiction

Among people aged 12 or older in 2020, 2.2 percent (or 6.2 million people) misused tranquilizers or sedatives that year. The percentage was found to be highest among young adults aged 18 to 25 (3.7 percent, or 1.2 million people), followed by adults aged 26 or older (2.2 percent or 4.7 million people), then by adolescents aged 12 to 17 (0.9 percent or 226,000 people)[7].

Around 1 in 10 people who overdose on barbiturates or a mixture that contains barbiturates will die[8].

Effects of Barbiturate Abuse

The mechanism and time frame for the effects of barbiturate abuse vary depending on whether the substance is classified as short, intermediate, or long-acting.

  • Short-acting barbiturates can produce an anesthetic effect and depress the CNS within sixty seconds after intravenous use.
  • Barbiturates classified as either intermediate or long-acting can take effect beginning around 15 minutes and last up to 12 hours.

All barbiturates have the ability to produce slurred speech, a loss of motor coordination, and impaired judgment, along with feelings of euphoria and lightness.

Can You Overdose on Barbiturates?

Yes, and the consequences can be deadly. Barbiturate overdose can present similar to alcohol intoxication, and can include the following symptoms:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Unfocused eyes
  • Fainting
  • Confused thought patterns, delirium
  • Psychosis
  • Trouble with respiration
  • A bluish tint to the lips and fingernails

Barbiturates can also result in coma or death due to their ability to suppress the CNS, along with the inherent difficulty of adequately measuring the dose.
If you suspect someone of having an overdose, call 911 for immediate medical attention.

Dangers of Long-Term Barbiturate Use

Taken over the long-term, barbiturates can lead to several complications, which include[9]:

  • Chronic breathing difficulties
  • Memory loss
  • Cardiac issues
  • Liver and kidney problems
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Twitching and issues with motor function

Mixing Barbiturates with Other Drugs

As stated above, mixing any sedative-based substance with other drugs can be fatal. Combining barbiturates with alcohol, for example, can cause a synergistic effect, resulting in acute toxicity and a high potential for mortality. What’s more, drugs in the sedative-hypnotic class are known to affect how the body processes several other prescription medications, increasing the risk for overdose and other drug-drug interactions.

Barbiturate Addiction and Abuse

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), addiction to barbiturates falls under the category of sedative, hypnotic, and anxiolytic use disorder, a category of substance use disorders[10].

An individual may be diagnosed with sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use disorder if they meet at least 2 of the following criteria within a 12-month period:

  1. Sedatives, hypnotics, or anxiolytics are often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use.
  3. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain, use or recover from the effects of the sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic.
  4. Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use the sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic.
  5. Recurrent sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home (e.g. repeated absences from work or poor work performance related to sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use; sedative-, hypnotic-, or anxiolytic-related absences, suspensions, or expulsions from school; neglect of children or household).
  6. Continued sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of sedatives, hypnotics, or anxiolytics (e.g. arguments with a spouse about consequences of intoxication; physical fights).
  7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use.
  8. Recurrent sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use in situations in which it is physically hazardous (e.g. driving an automobile or operating a machine when impaired by sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use).
  9. Sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic.
  10. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following;
    • A need for markedly increased amounts of the sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic to achieve intoxication or desired effect.
  11. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
    • The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the stimulant (refer to Criteria A and B of the criteria set for withdrawal).
    • The stimulant (or a closely related substance) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Are Barbiturates Addictive?

While barbiturate use, misuse, and deaths have been on the decline in recent decades, largely in part to the medical field now prescribing benzodiazepines for anxiety and utilizing other sedative agents for purposes, drugs in this class are nevertheless extremely addictive. The body builds a tolerance to their presence, making cessation difficult without the appropriate medical treatment and support.

Barbiturate Addiction and Mental Health

Barbiturates can induce temporary feelings of euphoria, but frequent misuse can also cause disruptions in overall mood and functioning, creating vulnerability for potential co-occurring conditions such as depression or anxiety.


Barbiturate Addiction Treatment

Treatment for barbiturate addiction—and sedative, hypnotic, and anxiolytic substance addiction on the whole—will normally begin with a medically-supervised detox program[11]. Providers can monitor and treat any severe withdrawal symptoms in a safe environment, and patients will then move on to engage in a structured inpatient treatment protocol to work on the underlying factors of addiction, along with providing treatment for any potential co-occurring disorders and additional medical needs.


Barbiturate Addiction Treatment Levels of Care

Rehab treatment for barbiturate addiction can include:

Supervised medical detox

A supervised period of medical monitoring to ensure there are no complications surrounding cessation.

Residential treatment

A structured treatment environment in which several modalities—including individual therapy, group therapy, medication management, and assessment for co-occurring issues—will work to provide new insights and coping strategies for long-term sobriety, typically lasting for at least 30 days.

Intensive outpatient (IOP)/Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)

Both IOP and PHP are programs that do not require an individual to be on-site at all times, but rather allow for a mix of in-person treatment services while still being delivered on an outpatient basis.


Ongoing therapy, support groups, and potential supportive living environments that can help to further integrate the learning and changes undergone during prior phases of treatment in the recovery process.

Therapies Used in Barbiturate Addiction Treatment

Several treatment modalities may be utilized to assist in the recovery process from sedative-based addiction, including:

CBT for barbiturates treatment

Cognitive-Behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT for barbiturates treatment

CBT works to assist individuals in learning more about negative thought patterns, developing new coping strategies, and re-evaluating their behaviors.

Motivational Interviewing for barbiturates treatment

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing for barbiturates treatment

This client-centered approach invokes collaboration and curiosity to explore the motivations for change, along with building rapport and identifying goals and motivation for ongoing sobriety.

Group therapy for barbiturates treatment

Group therapy

Group therapy for barbiturates treatment

Group therapy allows for individuals to process their experiences and gain new insights in a supportive environment of their peers, facilitated by a licensed professional.

EMDR therapy for barbiturates use

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR therapy for barbiturates use

EMDR helps to resolve traumatic memories and replace negative emotions with positive beliefs, reducing distress and increasing self-efficacy.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Individuals struggling with substance use disorders are also at risk for developing one or more concurrent mental health conditions or chronic diseases[12]. According to SAMHSA’s 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 9 million adults in the United States have a co-occurring disorder, many of which involve both substances and other mental health disorders.

Some of the more-common co-occurring disorders seen in individuals with a diagnosed substance use disorder include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Frequently Asked Questions


What are some of the most-commonly prescribed barbiturates?


Some of the most-commonly prescribed barbiturates include:

  • Amobarbital
  • Butalbital
  • Methohexital
  • Pentobarbital
  • Phenobarbital
  • Primidone
  • Secobarbital

What are some of the benefits of appropriately-prescribed barbiturates?


Barbiturates are considered to be older medications, which means they have decades of research for their efficacy in the appropriate circumstances. They can also serve as a clinical backup when the intended, first-line medications don’t work or can’t be used.


Are barbiturates commonly prescribed?


Barbiturate prescriptions are not as common as they used to be, as other medications have typically taken their place as first-line treatments.


Skibiski, J., & Abdijadid, S. (2020). Barbiturates. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. on July 13th, 2023


Barbiturate intoxication and overdose: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (2016). on July 13th, 2023


Barbiturates WHAT ARE BARBITURATES? (n.d.). on July 13th, 2023


SAMHSA (n.d.). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. on July 13th, 2023


Ito, T., Suzuki, T., Wellman, S. E., & Ho, I. K. (1996). Pharmacology of barbiturate tolerance/dependence: GABAa receptors and molecular aspects. Life Sciences, 59(3), 169–195. on July 13th, 2023


Skibiski, J., & Abdijadid, S. (2020). Barbiturates. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. on July 13th, 2023


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP22-07-01-005, NSDUH Series H-57). Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. on July 13th, 2023


Barbiturate intoxication and overdose: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (2016). on July 13th, 2023


American Addiction Centers Editorial Staff. (2023, January 20). Barbiturates side effects | Effects of prescription drug abuse. on July 13th, 2023


Hasin, D. S., O’Brien, C., Auriacombe, M., Borges, G., Bucholz, K. K., Budney, A. J., Compton, W. M., Crowley, T. J., Ling, W., Petry, N. M., Schuckit, M. A., & Grant, B. F. (2013). DSM-5 Criteria for Substance Use Disorders: Recommendations and Rationale. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170(8), 834–851. on July 13th, 2023


Barbiturate withdrawal. Withdrawal. (2022, June 20). on July 13th, 2023


Co-Occurring Disorders and Other Health Conditions. (n.d.). on July 14th, 2023

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