Barbituate is a class of CNS (central nervous system) depressants that originate from barbituric acid. These are classified as sedative/hypnotic drugs. Prescribed primarily for anesthesia and sedation, barbituates are also used for the control of seizures, as anti-anxiety medication, and for short-term bouts of severe insomnia.

These drugs suppress the central nervous system. Barbiturates work with the action of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) by binding to the GABA-receptor/chloride channel.  he result alters function in the cerebella, depresses motor function, and dulls the sensory cortex. Notably, this class of drug has a very slim therapeutic index. “Therapeutic index” relates to a ratio of dosage between a therapeutic dose and a toxic, potentially lethal dose.

This class of drug is often seen as a secondary form of addiction to counter-act the effects of stimulant drugs, abused for their effects that are similar to that of alcohol in low doses, and as a means to induce sleep. Length of effectiveness varies with the specific type of barbituate. Some barbituate effects last only minutes, some 6-8 hours, and others for up to 2 days. Barbiturates can be injected into the veins or muscles, but they are usually taken in pill form.

Street names

There are several different barbituate drugs, and some street names follow specific drugs and their identifying colors:

  • Amobarbital – Blue devils
  • Pentobarbital – Yellow jackets
  • Phenobarbital – Purple hearts
  • Secobarbital – Reds
  • Tuinol – Rainbows

Other street names used reflect generalized effects:

  • Downers
  • Sleepers
  • Stumblers

Drug Classification

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has classified Barbituate as a Schedule II controlled substance. Substances found in schedule II have a medicinal purpose but pose a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

Effects of Use

  • Slowed heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fainting
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Drunken behavior
  • Slurred speech
  • Depression
  • Uninhibited behavior
  • Mental disturbances
  • Unsteadiness
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath

The effects noted often present with heightened psychological responses that may cause prolonged deficits such as memory loss, mental disturbances and confusion.


First synthesized November, 1864 by German chemist Adolf von Baeyer. This was done by condensing urea, a waste product from an animal, with diethyl malonate (derived from malic acid). No medical benefit was discovered until 1903 when two German scientists found that barbital was effective at putting dogs to sleep. Barbital was then first given the brand name Veronal. The story is told that one founding scientist proposed the name Veronal in honor of the Italian city of Verona because he felt it was the most peaceful setting he knew; symbolic for the state of being he hoped patients would experience with the use of this product. During the 1950’s it became clear that barbituate use posed dangerous behavioral, physiological, and psychological disturbances. These drugs also proved themselves to be highly addictive and easily abused. Barbituates were still very popular during the 1960’s and 70’s, but the 1970’s were the end of premier status for barbituates. Benzodiazepine drugs over-rode the popularity of barbituates at the end of the 70’s because they were found to be a less-harmful alternative to relieve the same symptoms.

Signs of abuse

Barbituates present with readily noticeable signs and behaviors. However, Friends and family often attribute these behaviors to the conditions that caused the initiation of the prescribed medication, not realizing that the patient has consistently increased their dosage and intake due to increased tolerance. Secondary abuse can also occur due to misuse in conjunction with another primary drug of choice. According to the FDA, “the characteristics of dependence on barbituate use include: (a) a strong desire or need to continue taking the drug; (b) a tendency to increase the dose; (c) a psychic dependence on the effects of the drug related to subjective and individual appreciation of those effects; and (d) a physical dependence on the effects of the drug, requiring its presence for maintenance of homeostasis and resulting in a definite, characteristic, and self-limited abstinence syndrome when the drug is withdrawn.”

Immediately visible signs

  • Drunken behavior
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired breathing
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Lack of Motivation
  • Mood swings


Dependence on barbituate drugs arise from repeated dosing of the drug over a period of time and at increasingly higher levels of dosage. Dependence is also expressly noted at consistent use of a higher prescribed dosage for one month or more. Withdrawal onset is 8-12 hours after last dosage. Symptoms of withdrawal can be severe and may cause death. Major withdrawal symptoms, such as convulsions and delirium, may occur within 16 hours of last dosage, and can last up to 5 days. Symptom intensity gradually declines within15 days.

Symptoms of withdrawal or abstinence include:

  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Muscle pain
  • Irregular heart beat
  • difficulty sleeping
  • agitation
  • hallucinations
  • high temperature
  • seizures


Home treatment should not be attempted. Treatment should be managed by medical personnel. Abstinence syndrome, seen upon onset of immediate cessation withdrawal symptoms, can be life-threatening. Most patients will be given activated charcoal to bind any drugs left in their stomach. Patients are then admitted to the hospital and are held for observation. There may be further monitoring and treatment. Further treatment depends upon the individual situation.

Barbituate withdrawal can be successfully managed by a qualified treatment facility. If you, or someone you know, have a problem with addiction please call any of our drug rehab treatment centers for further information. To locate a facility in your area that can provide the assistance you need, call 877-855-3470.