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The Dangers of Barbiturates Abuse

BarbituratesAlthough the medical and recreational use of barbiturates has been steadily declining since the 1970s, there is no reason to believe that society has completely been rid of the dangerous effects of these drugs. Approximately 9 percent of Americans abuse barbiturates at some point of their life. In addition, around one in five children are raised in a household where a family member abuses barbiturates at some time in their childhood. Doctors are prescribing barbiturates less and addictions to barbiturates are diminishing, but surveys suggest that illegal use of the drugs may be on the rise compared to years past, especially among teenagers.

While barbiturate abuse does not get nearly as much press or discussion as other drugs, statistics prove the class of drugs still is causing significant health risks and damaging effects of abuse to the lives of a number of people in the United States. It is very important to be aware of these barbiturates that are still circulating on the streets and drug market. Read on to find out more about this group of drugs and how abuse of barbiturates can be detrimental on the human body.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are a class of drugs that are derived from barbituric acid and are depressants on the central nervous system. These drugs are one of the most dangerous groups of drugs available because there is a very small difference between a prescription dose and toxic dose that leads to overdose. Since barbiturates are such a powerful depressant on the nervous system, small dosages can even cause long-term destruction on the body, or fatality. Therefore, barbiturates have been designated by the DEA as controlled substances. Barbiturates can either be taken as a pill or be injected directly into the bloodstream through a vein or muscle.

Barbiturates are commonly known by street names that describe the effects of the drug or the color and markings in the design of the pill form. Some of the street names are “Purple Hearts,” “Red Birds,” Mexican Yellows,” and “Goof Balls.” The drugs are generally categorized by speed of onset and duration of effects, such as short, intermediate, and long-lasting. The most common barbiturates are:

  • Amobarbital (DEA Schedule II)
  • Barbital (DEA Schedule IV)
  • Phenobarbital (DEA Schedule IV)
  • Butalbital (DEA Schedule III)
  • Pentobarbital (DEA Schedule II)
  • Secobarbital (DEA Schedule II)
  • Methohexital (DEA Schedule IV)

After several social trends in the past decades, barbiturates have been increasingly used to counteract the stimulating symptoms of other drugs. Often nicknamed “downer,” drug abusers may use barbiturates as a way to offset the effects from stimulants, including methamphetamines or cocaine. Other abusers of barbiturates are unaware or unknowledgeable of the harmful side effects that can lead to overdose. Barbiturates abuse often co-occurs with other forms of substance dependence, including alcoholism, drug addition, gambling addiction, or smoking.

Why Are They Prescribed?

Due to the depressant effects on the body, the drugs are often used in medical procedures that require mild sedation or general anesthesia. Barbiturates are also commonly prescribed as anticonvulsants for patients that are suffering from seizure disorders, insomnia, and delirium tremens. Although barbiturates were also primarily used to treat anxiety disorders, evidence has indicated that the drugs often lead to dependence problems and overdose. Compared to previous decades, barbiturates are considerably less commonly prescribed and have been replaced by benzodiazepines. These other drugs are proven to have the same effects, without the high dangers of addiction.

Research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration discovered that women are far more likely to be prescribed the drugs than men. It is believed that women receive barbiturate prescriptions more because they have higher chances of seeking help for anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other disorders that have been treated with barbiturates. The survey also found a correlation that signified that barbiturates are more commonly prescribed to elderly people, since they use the drug as a sedative to deal with physical pain.

How Do They Affect the Body?

When used for medical purposes, these drugs depress the nerve activity in the skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscles of the body. The drug also slows down the central nervous system in multiple different ways. As a result, barbiturates can produce effects from mild sedation to coma, varying on the dosage taken and the method that the individual intakes the drug. Very low dosages of barbiturates have been effective at reducing anxiety levels, lower agitation, and relieve tension. Higher dosages lower the user’s blood pressure, as well as their heart rate and pulse. As the drug relaxes the brain, the effects of barbiturates are comparable to that of alcohol and other depressant drugs. Some of the noticeable effects that can be observed in someone taking barbiturates include:

  • Lack of motor coordination, locomotion, and balance
  • Disorientation, forgetfulness, and confusion
  • Shallow breathing, extreme fatigue, sedation, and reduced anxiety levels
  • Inability to make concise decisions and impaired judgments
  • Irregular and unpredictable behaviors
  • Slurred speech and/or disruptive random vocalizations

The risks of barbiturate abuse are significantly higher in older patients. As the elderly age, they lose the ability to excrete and eliminate the drugs quickly from their body. Therefore, individuals over the age of 65 are at an increased risk of experiencing these adverse effects, developing an addiction, and accidentally overdosing on the drugs. Risks are extremely high for pregnant women as well, and it is never recommended that an expectant mother take these drugs. The drug has the ability to pass through the mother’s blood and the placenta to reach the growing fetus. This often leads to babies being born with congenital abnormalities and other birth defects.

How Do These Drugs Affect the Body When Abused?

An addiction often leads to severe hardships that impact the physical, emotional, social, and psychological lives of the abuser. Physical health complications, severed relationships, and difficult financial situations are common for those that abuse barbiturates. Many abusers report that they can no longer function or fall asleep without taking the drugs. Long-term abuse of barbiturates can have severe damaging effects on all aspects of the abuser’s life, but it can also lead to overdose death and fatal health complications in small dosages. Potential dangerous side effects from barbiturates are the following:

  • Respiratory distress, chronic pneumonia, and respiratory failure as the result of inflamed airways trying to clear the contaminants out of the lungs
  • Hepatitis, liver failure, bile obstruction, or liver cancer
  • Pulmonary vessel dilation, weakened heart contractions, blood pooling, or cardiac arrest
  • Low blood pressure, reduced heart rate, and/or fainting
  • Slowed and slurred speech, sleepiness, memory loss, and confusion
  • Disorientation, irregular reflexes, and sexual impotence
  • Severe anxiety, hallucinations, intense mood swings, and mood disorders
  • Depression, irritability, and suicidal thoughts
  • Increased isolation, withdrawal from activities once enjoyable, and disruptive behaviors that impede relationships or friendships
  • Unconsciousness, coma, or death from overdose

How Are Barbiturates Dangerous?

One of the most risky aspects of being addicted and abusing barbiturates is when they are combined with other drugs. The depressive effects are far more potent when combined with drugs like heroin, cocaine, or alcohol than when the substances are taken by themselves. There is also the increased risk for potentially dangerous drug interactions when abusers begin mixing these different substances. Since abusers all react differently to the effects from barbiturates at varying times, they may become disoriented or forgetful about how many pills they have already taken. This significantly increases the risk for unintentional and accidental overdose, which may lead to death.

Furthermore, barbiturate addictions are highly dangerous for the severe withdrawal symptoms that can lead to significant damage to the body or even death. Since the majority of barbiturates are short or intermediate acting drugs, stopping use of the drugs can rapidly lead to withdrawal symptoms. As an addict develops a tolerance to the drug, they will also notice a need for more of the drug to receive the same desired effects, which increases the withdrawal later on. Withdrawal symptoms can develop as quickly as the first few hours after the last use of the pills or injection; however, withdrawal can last for up to a week. Depending on the type of barbiturate and the length of use, dangerous or life-threatening withdrawal effects include:

  • High blood pressure, hypotension, and cardiovascular collapse
  • Hallucinations, delirium, seizures, and tremors
  • Sleeplessness, insomnia, or restlessness
  • High fever, excessive sweating, and anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts, extreme depression, irritability, and anger

How Does One Go About Quitting Barbiturates?

Since these withdrawal symptoms are very severe, supervision by a medical professional is the required first step to a successful treatment. Barbiturates inpatient treatment centers are a vital part of the detoxification process that leads to overcoming dangerous barbiturates. Within the safety of an inpatient treatment facility, specially trained medical professionals will oversee the detoxification, help minimize the withdrawal symptoms by gradual tapering, and provide medical care if any severe conditions occur. Although an addiction to these drugs is overwhelming, abusers do not have to fight the battle all alone. The professional treatment rehab team will enable the best care to break the vicious abuse cycle. Ultimately, abusers are given all of the resources and hope to quit abuse for good.

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