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Barbiturates are a class of drug first synthesized (man-made) in the late 1800’s. They may have paved the way for intravenous (IV) anesthesia, but they also proved deadly, contributing to the deaths of many people, including Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

Today, barbiturates are not widely prescribed, due to their serious side effects. A few are still used medically. They do, however, appear as street drugs. Here is what you should know about these dangerous “downers,” also known as the “coma drug.”

What are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are chemical drugs used for three primary purposes: as a sedative (for calming or for sleep), as a hypnotic, or as an anticonvulsant (for seizures). Its effects were noticeably similar to alcohol, in that it made people more relaxed, drowsy and intoxicated, which is why it is known as a “brain relaxer.”

Unlike alcohol, however, barbiturates have what is called a narrow therapeutic index. That means that difference between the amount that can have a therapeutic effect, like stopping a seizure, and the quantity that can cause a coma or even death is very, very small. That quality made barbiturates go out of fashion in the medical world in the 1970’s, and today benzodiazepines are more commonly used as sedative-hypnotics in the medical community, than barbiturates.

Barbiturates were some of the first IV drugs used to put patients to sleep for medical procedures like surgery. However, their other consequences and the effects upon waking (such as a bad headache) made doctors seek other solutions. Another modified version of barbiturates came in the form of phenobarbital. Also known as sodium pentothal, this is the so-called “truth serum” made famous in spy movies. However, research has shown that hypnotic, sleep-producing or intoxicating drugs like phenobarbital can no more make someone tell the truth than alcohol does.

Risks of Barbiturate Drugs

The most dangerous risk with barbiturates has to do with dosage: a very low dose can induce a coma or cause death. Elvis Presley reportedly had to cancel shows after a barbiturate caused him to go into a three-day coma. Barbiturates were eventually indicated in his death. It is difficult to gauge how much of a barbiturate will induce coma, which is why the medical profession has warned against their use so heavily.

A barbiturate is particularly dangerous when combined with any other sedative, such as alcohol, marijuana, pain medicine, sleeping pills or even antihistamines (allergy drugs like Benadryl). When sold on the street, there is no regulation and no way to gauge how much of a barbiturate is present in a drug, nor if it has been combined with other drugs. That makes illegal barbiturates particularly dangerous.

Street Names and Forms

When barbiturate drugs were first synthesized they came in over 2500 forms, and at least 50 varieties were used medically. That means that what is on the street today can have many, many varieties. Those varieties also have many names. They are also often pushed as a “downer” to take after an upper (such as methamphetamines, cocaine or speed). Such yo-yo energy drugging is another added danger of barbiturates.

Street drugs are often named for the color, but also may have many other names, including:

  • Downers
  • Barbs
  • Barbaras
  • Sleepers
  • Color names which correspond to pill color like blue heavens, blue devils, yellow jackets, purple hearts, reds, red devils, pinks, pink ladies, rainbows, or reds and blues

These drugs generally come in pill form, but can also be injected, administered as a suppository, or (rarely) snorted.

Effects of Barbiturates

In addition to the serious side effects of coma or death, barbiturates are considered highly addictive. Withdrawal symptoms include tremors, difficulty sleeping, agitation, hallucinations, high temperature, and seizures.

Other side effects of barbiturate use include:

  • Insomnia
  • Agitation or irritability
  • Emotional instability
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Paranoia or psychosis
  • Memory and attention problems
  • Slurred speech
  • Stupor
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney failure
  • Other organ damage
  • Significant brain damage
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Thoughts of or attempts at suicide

While some of these side effects are rare, prolonged use or abuse increases the likelihood of any such consequences. Therefore, even when medically prescribed, doctors closely monitor patients for negative health effects or dependency upon the prescribed barbiturate.

Treatment for Barbiturates

Due to the highly addictive nature of barbiturates, and the potentially serious effects of withdrawal, it is not recommended that one attempt to quit barbiturates without proper supervision. Inpatient care and supervision have the most likelihood of success.

Many barbiturate addicts also take them in combination with other substances, so treatment may require withdrawal from multiple drugs. That can make withdrawal very uncomfortable and difficult to experience and persist through. However, treatment for barbiturate addiction is still entirely possible, given the right treatment program.

If you or a loved one are using barbiturates, get care quickly before it is too late. Call New Beginnings today to start the path toward recovery from drug addiction.

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