Barbiturate Overdose: Risks, Side Effects, and Symptoms

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Barbiturate Overdose: Risks, Side Effects, and Symptoms

Barbiturate abuse can lead to serious risks, harmful side effects, and overdose.

Barbiturates were first used in the early 1900s for medicinal purposes. In the 1960s and 70s, they were widely prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizure disorders. Since then, they’ve become a popular drug for recreational abuse but misusing them can increase your risk of overdose, especially if you take them with alcohol or opioids.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are classified as sedative-hypnotic drugs. Generally, barbiturate side effects are relaxation and sleepiness and they’re used to treat seizure disorders or pain syndromes. In low doses, barbiturates can make people seem drunk. With repeated use, you can quickly develop a tolerance to the mood-altering effects of barbiturates.

Most people begin taking barbiturates because they were prescribed to them (or a family member) by a doctor for a specific medical condition. Although many do not abuse them, some do. People who use barbiturates (especially long-term) can easily become addicted to them and usually develop a tolerance. Once they are physically dependent on them, quitting barbiturates can be very difficult and the withdrawal symptoms are difficult to manage and may even be life-threatening.

Unfortunately, barbiturate abuse and addiction is a common problem. About 5.9 million Americans ages 12 and older reported misusing prescription barbiturates in the past year in 2019.1

People who misuse barbiturates do so to for the following reasons:

  • To get high
  • To get better/more sleep
  • To reduce anxiety
  • To combat unwanted symptoms of illegal drugs

Many people who abuse barbiturates use them alongside alcohol and heroin because they enhance the effects of these drugs. However, this is a very dangerous practice. Using barbiturates with alcohol or opioids will significantly increase the risk of overdose.2,3

Symptoms of Barbiturate Overdose

When someone takes more than the recommended dose of barbiturates (either on purpose or accidentally), they may experience a barbiturate overdose. Most barbiturate overdoses involve a mixture of barbiturates and alcohol or barbiturates and opioids like heroin, oxycodone, or fentanyl.

According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), symptoms of barbiturate misuse and overdose can include:4

  • Difficulties thinking
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Shallow breathing
  • Slow, slurred speech
  • Sluggishness
  • Staggering
  • Faulty judgment
  • Coma

About 1 in 10 people who suffer a barbiturate overdose will die, mostly due to heart and lung problems. Additionally, a person may experience several health complications during a barbiturate overdose, such as:5

  • Head injury, concussion, neck, or spinal injuries (caused by falling)
  • Muscle damage
  • Miscarriage in pregnant women
  • Pneumonia from food or fluid getting into the lungs (caused by depressed gag reflex)
  • Coma
  • Death

What to Do In the Event of a Barbiturate Overdose

If you think someone is experiencing a barbiturate overdose, you’ll need to call 911 immediately for emergency help. Having professional medical experts there to treat the overdose victim will help ensure that he or she survives it. Additionally, if you know that the person has used opioids with the barbiturates, you should alert the medical professionals. They may be able to use Naloxone to reverse the side effects of opioid overdose.

What Are Barbiturate Withdrawal Symptoms?

Barbiturate withdrawal can be very dangerous and should be treated in an inpatient facility like a detox center. Common barbiturate withdrawal symptoms include:6

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Delirium
  • Low body temperature
  • Sweating
  • Seizures

The duration and severity of barbiturate withdrawal symptoms will vary from person to person, depending on factors like how frequently they use barbiturates, how much they use each time, the method of use, and if they are abusing other drugs with barbiturates.

Barbiturate Detox: What to Expect

The safest and most effective way to stop using barbiturates once you’re addicted is to complete a barbiturate detox program at a detox center. The barbiturate detox center should provide 24/7 monitoring to ensure your safety and comfort throughout detox. Medical professionals will start your barbiturate detox program with a physical and psychological assessment to determine your treatment needs.

Once treatment begins, nurses and doctors may begin by tapering drug dosages to gradually wean you off the barbiturates. Once the tapering process is complete and you are physically able, you’ll begin cognitive behavioral therapy through individual therapy sessions with a counselor. These sessions will help you connect your thoughts, feelings, and emotions with your drug use to identify the underlying causes of your addiction.

During detox, you’ll also have the chance to meet with other peers in recovery for group counseling sessions. These sessions will help you work through any psychological symptoms of barbiturate withdrawal, such as anxiety, and begin establishing a stable foundation for your recovery.

At Briarwood Detox Center, we also offer H&I meetings for our barbiturate detox clients. These meetings introduce you to the 12-Step Program and give you a chance to hear from others who have gone through detox and rehab, meet with potential sponsors, and find out more about how the 12-Step Program works.

After you complete your barbiturate detox program, your treatment provider will offer recommendations for ongoing treatment in a rehab program. Although barbiturate detox is an essential part of recovering from barbiturate addiction, it’s just the first phase in a comprehensive addiction treatment program. Residential rehab or outpatient rehab will help you identify and address harmful behavior and thought patterns and make positive changes to achieve long-lasting sobriety.

What Is the Best Treatment for Barbiturate Addiction?

Barbiturate addiction is a disease that will require ongoing treatment and care to overcome. The best treatment for barbiturate addiction involves several different stages and levels of care that will address your physical and psychological addiction.

  • Detox: A barbiturate detox program will help you break your physical dependence on barbiturates (and any other addictive substances you’re using). That way, you won’t need the drugs to feel normal anymore. You’ll have a clear head and you’ll be better equipped to establish a stable and sober life for yourself.
  • Rehab: A residential rehab program can provide intensive treatment if you’ve struggled with substance abuse in the past or you’ve had multiple relapses before. Clients live onsite at the rehab center for 90 (or more) days while they complete an addiction treatment program. In some instances, an intensive outpatient program (IOP) may also be a good fit for you. This type of barbiturate rehab program will offer a flexible schedule so you can continue working, going to school, or attending to household responsibilities while you complete treatment. If you’re not sure what type of barbiturate rehab program would be best for you, a treatment professional can provide expert recommendations based on your assessment results, treatment history, and other needs.
  • Sober living: After detox and rehab, many people choose to move into a sober living home, where they receive ongoing sobriety support. Sober living homes offer safe, structured housing for men, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals who are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. These homes provide group meetings, recovery support programs and services, and important social bonds and connections with peers in recovery. Sober living residents are also frequently required to attend local recovery group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or 12-Step alternatives like SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, or LifeRing Secular Recovery.

Recovery From Barbiturate Addiction Starts With Detox

If you’re struggling with barbiturate addiction, you don’t have to suffer any longer. The caring professionals at Briarwood Detox Center are available to help you now. Call us at (888) 857-0557 to get started today.


  1. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29393/2019NSDUHFFRPDFWHTML/2019NSDUHFFR1PDFW090120.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1930792/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1924190/
  4. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000951.htm
  5. https://ufhealth.org/barbiturate-intoxication-and-overdose
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/barbiturate-overdose

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