Barbiturate Addiction: Signs and Symptoms To Look Out For

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The use of barbiturate drugs can lead to a barbiturates addiction, a dangerous and life-threatening condition, if not treated appropriately. These drugs are a group of sedative-hypnotic medications prescribed to treat various conditions, such as:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Epilepsy
  • Sleep disorders like insomnia
  • Muscle spasms

Barbiturates depress central nervous system activity, slowing brain activity, heart rate, and respiratory rate.1,2

Popular barbiturate brand names include Luminal (phenobarbital), Nembutal, Seconal, Fiorina, and Pentothal. These drugs range in the onset of effects from ultra short-acting to long-acting, with most who abuse barbiturates preferring the short-acting and intermediate-acting medications.1

Abusing barbiturates is extremely dangerous, as it can lead to several harmful consequences like tolerance, physiological dependence (and withdrawal), addiction, and overdose, among many other physical and psychiatric effects.2

What is a Barbiturate Addiction? 

A barbiturates addiction is a substance use disorder, characterized by compulsive barbiturate abuse regardless of negative consequences in one or more areas of your life, such as home, work, school, or social. If you have an addiction to barbiturates, you likely struggle with controlling or abstaining from barbiturate use3 and likely demonstrate at least two of the following signs in a 1-year period:3

  • Taking larger doses or more frequent doses of barbiturates than originally intended.
  • Failing to cut down or quit barbiturate abuse despite efforts to.
  • Spending an excessive amount of time obtaining and using barbiturates, as well as recovering from use.
  • Experiencing strong urges to use barbiturates.
  • Continuing to use barbiturates despite negative consequences at school, home, or work.
  • Continuing to use barbiturate drugs regardless of the problems it causes in your social life.
  • Giving up important occupational, social, or recreational activities to use barbiturates.
  • Using barbiturates in dangerous situations, such as while driving.
  • Continuing to use barbiturate drugs despite use worsening or causing physical or psychological issues.
  • Developing a tolerance (needing more barbiturates to feel high).
  • Experiencing barbiturate withdrawal symptoms when you abruptly stop or reduce use.

It’s important to emphasize the fact that a barbiturate addiction, no matter how severe, is always treatable. Help is just a phone call away—call 800-681-1058 (Info iconWho Answers?) to speak to a caring and compassionate recovery advisor to find the best treatment program for you.

Who Is At Risk For Barbiturate Addiction

If you have access to barbiturates, whether legally for a medical condition or illegally, you are at risk of misusing and abusing barbiturates. Without availability, there isn’t the opportunity to abuse these sedatives.

Risk factors for drug abuse in adolescence include:5,6

  • Poverty.
  • Violence in the community.
  • Past or current substance abuse.
  • Lack of parental supervision.
  • Early aggressive behaviors.
  • Social environments that encourage drug use.
  • Being around a caregiver who uses drugs.
  • Child abuse or maltreatment.
  • Academic failure.

Those who are more at risk of abusing or becoming addicted to sedatives include:7

  • Female gender.
  • Older age group.
  • Former and current smokers.
  • Presence of mood or anxiety disorder.
  • Individuals supported by seniors’ benefits or welfare.

It’s important to remember that just because you or someone you know has several risk factors for drug or barbiturate abuse, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will struggle with drug abuse or addiction. Many protective factors help combat these risk factors, such as:5,6

  • Education
  • Parental involvement
  • Participation in community activities
  • Improved impulse control
  • Academic attendance and achievement

Signs and Symptoms of a Barbiturate Drug Addiction

Knowing the signs of a barbiturate drug addiction is the first step to getting help—once you recognize the warning signs of drug abuse, you can then find a treatment program that can help you get clean and sober.

Some of the most common side effects of barbiturate abuse include:2,3

  • Poor concentration
  • Confusion
  • Light-headedness / dizziness
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Memory issues
  • Inability to pay attention
  • Coordination problems
  • Unsteady gait
  • Slowed breathing
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Slurred speech
  • Repetitive, uncontrollable eye movements
  • Stupor or coma

Many of the above signs and symptoms of barbiturate abuse are indicative of intoxication, but even if you aren’t currently high on barbiturates, there are several behaviors signs that can indicate an addiction, including:

  • Exhibiting secretive behaviors.
  • Doctor shopping” for new physicians to prescribe barbiturates.
  • Mixing barbiturates with alcohol or other substances.
  • Neglecting previously enjoyed activities or hobbies.
  • Failing to take care of hygiene.
  • Exhibiting noticeable mood swings or changes.

If you or someone you know is struggling with barbiturate abuse or any other drug use, call 800-681-1058 (Info iconWho Answers?) to speak to a treatment support specialist. They can help you find the rehab that’s best for you.

Long-Term Effects of an Addiction to Barbiturates

Abusing barbiturates in the long-term can cause many unwanted and harmful consequences, such as:3,8

  • Impaired memory
  • Changes in alertness
  • Irritability
  • Painful and even deadly withdrawal symptoms due to dependence
  • Increased risk of overdose and death due to increased tolerance

Barbiturate addictions tend to worsen over time, and without treatment, you may notice many negative consequences in various parts of your life. These disruptive and damaging effects may include:

  • Worsening or developing psychiatric problems as a result of barbiturate abuse
  • Experiencing legal problems for unlawful possession of barbiturates
  • Losing custody of your child or children
  • Experiencing a divorce or break-up
  • Having financial problems
  • Losing your job
  • Missing school or work
  • Failing to fulfill spousal or parenting responsibilities

Barbiturate Dependence and Withdrawal

Chronic barbiturate abuse can lead to physiological dependence, which means that your body requires the presence of the sedative in order to feel “normal.” If you are dependent on a barbiturate and then suddenly stop using it—whether in an effort to quit or because you’re unable to obtain any—you will experience distressing and dangerous withdrawal symptoms, such as:2,3

  • Tremors or shakiness
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Increased body temperature and sweating
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

Because of the grand mal seizures, barbiturate withdrawal can be fatal. If you’ve abused barbiturates for an extended period of time, it’s not recommended that you try to quit on your own. If you are thinking of quitting barbiturates, call 800-681-1058 (Info iconWho Answers?) to find a detox program or rehab that offers detox services.

Risk of Overdose 

Another risk of long-term barbiturate abuse is the extremely high risk of a barbiturate overdose, especially due to the rapid development of tolerance. Unlike benzodiazepines, which are relatively safe sedative-hypnotics, barbiturates have a narrow therapeutic index—this means that the difference between a dose that has the desired therapeutic effects and a fatal dose is very small.9

Once you develop a tolerance and have to take higher doses of barbiturates to get high, that therapeutic index shrinks even more, effectively increasing your risk of accidentally overdosing.

Below are some barbiturate overdose signs to be aware of:1,10

  • Reduced body temperature
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Severe respiratory depression
  • Increased thirst
  • Decreased urine production
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Weak pulse
  • Poor coordination
  • Vertigo or nausea
  • Muscle weakness
  • Contracted or dilated pupils
  • Coma

If you are concerned you or someone you know is overdosing on barbiturates or any other substance, call 911 immediately. Provide as much information as you can about what was taken, how much, and when.

Barbiturate Addiction Treatment Programs

Barbiturate addiction treatment programs occur in two primary settings: inpatient rehab and outpatient recovery. Both types of treatment settings can help you recover from your barbiturate addiction by equipping you with helpful coping skills and tools to avoid relapse and remain sober. The differences lie in program intensity and flexibility.

Inpatient Treatment for Barbiturate Abuse 

If you attend an inpatient rehab program, you are required to reside at the treatment center for the duration of your program, which may last anywhere from 30 to 90 days, although it may be longer if needed.

Every inpatient drug abuse program has different program features, philosophies, and rules, but all of them typically include the same evidence-based interventions, including:

Outpatient Rehab for Barbiturate Addiction

If you still need to attend work or school while receiving treatment for your barbiturate addiction, you may want to consider an outpatient treatment program, which allows you to live at home while attending treatment at a facility.

Every outpatient addiction treatment program is different, so you’ll want to make sure to do your research when comparing available programs. Although inpatient treatment is generally recommended, an outpatient program can be more convenient.

Here are the most common types of outpatient recovery programs:11,12

  • Standard outpatient: You attend therapy or counseling 1-2 times per week, for 1-2 hours at a time. This is the least intensive option and requires high patient compliance.
  • Intensive outpatient treatment (IOT): A step up from standard treatment, you attend rehab for at least 9 hours per week, spread out between 3 and 5 days.
  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHP): Sometimes called “day treatment,” a PHP is the most intensive outpatient option, and you attend treatment between 4 and 6 hours per day for 5 days per week.


  1. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020). Barbiturates.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Prescription CNS Depressants DrugFacts.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders(5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  4. American Society of Addiction Medicine. Definition of Addiction.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2011). Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents (In Brief): What are risk factors and protective factors?
  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.) Risk and Protective Factors.
  7. Vozoris, N. T., & Leung, R. S. (2011). Sedative Medication Use: Prevalence, Risk Factors, and Associations with Body Mass Index Using Population-Level Data. Sleep, 34(7), 869-874. doi:10.5665/SLEEP.1116
  8. S. National Library of Medicine. (2019). Barbiturate intoxication and overdose.
  9. Coupey, S. M. (1997). Barbiturates [Abstract]. Pediatrics in Review, 18(8), 260-265. doi:
  10. Suddock, J., & Cain, M. (2020). Barbiturate Toxicity. In StatPearls. Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing.
  11. Chapter 3. Intensive Outpatient Treatment and the Continuum of Care. (2012). In Substance abuse: Clinical issues in intensive outpatient treatment. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
  12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide: Treatment Settings.
Marisa Crane, BSHS
Writer / Editor
Marisa, B.S. in Health Sciences, has been an editor and writer in the addiction and rehab space for over seven years. Prior to her editing career, she worked as a behavioral health worker and mental health worker for children and adolescents in both a school and partial hospitalization setting. When she isn’t working on, she enjoys camping with her family.