Barbiturates vs Benzodiazepines

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Feeling calm and relaxed are common effects of both barbiturates and benzodiazepines. But despite their similarities, these two classes of drugs differ significantly in the way they work, their potential for addiction, and overall safety. In this article we will outline the differences between barbiturates and benzodiazepines, discuss what sets them apart and why one is considered more dangerous than the other.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are powerful sedatives primarily used to treat conditions such as seizures, anxiety, and insomnia. They work by enhancing the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a brain chemical that slows brain cell communication. This slows nerve activity, and leads to muscle relaxation, slowed heart rate, and a calming effect on the body.

Despite their effectiveness, barbiturates have a narrow therapeutic dosage range, making it easy to shift from a safe to a dangerous dose. This fine line increases the risk of unintended and potentially fatal consequences. Barbiturates can also be particularly dangerous when combined with other central nervous system depressants, like opioids, antidepressants, or alcohol, increasing sedation and the risk of coma.

Over the years, barbiturates have fallen out of favor in medical practice because of their high potential for misuse, addiction, and fatal overdose. Nowadays, they are primarily used in perioperative settings and are rarely prescribed for managing long-term conditions.

Types of Barbiturates

Barbiturates are a class of central nervous system depressants, and they encompass a large range of medications with different potencies and lengths of action.

  • Short-acting barbiturates, like pentobarbital (Nembutal) and secobarbital (Seconal), are frequently used in anesthesia for their rapid onset and short action, making them ideal for short medical procedures.
  • Intermediate-acting barbiturates, like amobarbital (Amytal) and butalbital, are often prescribed to address anxiety and insomnia.
  • Long-acting barbiturates, including phenobarbital, are commonly utilized to manage seizures.

Each barbiturate comes with a unique profile, allowing doctors to tailor their use according to the specific needs of patients.

What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines, commonly known as ‘benzos’, are another class of sedatives used to treat conditions like anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. While they also enhance the effects of GABA, benzos differ from barbiturates in the way they behave. Rather than directly stimulating GABA receptors, benzos make these receptors more efficient, resulting in a calming effect without the same level of central nervous system depression.

Benzos are considered safer than barbiturates because they are less strong and less addictive. However, they still carry a relatively high likelihood of physical and emotional dependency, especially with long-term use.

The key advantage of benzodiazepines is their versatility—they are prescribed for anxiety, seizures, insomnia, and even alcohol withdrawal. Their fast-acting nature makes them popular for managing panic attacks. However, the widespread availability of benzos has contributed to higher rates of abuse and addiction compared to barbiturates.

Types of Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines make up a diverse class of medications with distinct properties and uses. This category of central nervous system depressants includes:

  • Short-acting benzos like alprazolam (Xanax), primarily prescribed for anxiety disorders.
  • Intermediate-acting benzos, like lorazepam (Ativan) and clonazepam (Klonopin), are used for managing many different conditions, including anxiety, seizures, and agitation.
  • Long-acting benzo, like Diazepam (Valium), is frequently used for alcohol withdrawal, seizures, and muscle spasms due to its long duration of action. Temazepam (Restoril) is often prescribed for insomnia.

The variety of benzos available allows healthcare professionals to tailor treatments to specific patient needs, considering factors such as the rapidity of onset, duration of action, and the type of condition being treated. 

Barbiturates vs Benzos:The Main Differences

The chart below details the main differences between barbiturates and benzodiazepines. 




Barbiturates vs benzodiazepines mechanism of action

Directly binds to GABA channels, keeping them open for an extended time and causing a strong depressive effect on the central nervous system.


Enhances the efficiency of GABA receptors without directly stimulating them, resulting in a milder sedative effect.


Barbiturates vs benzodiazepines potency and addiction risk

Are stronger and have a higher risk of addiction, making them less suitable for long-term use.


Are considered a safer alternative due to their lower potency, but they still pose a risk of physical and emotional dependency.


Barbiturates vs benzodiazepines in medical use

They are now limited to pre-operative settings due to their high risk of addiction and overdose.


They are prescribed for a wide range of conditions, including anxiety, seizures, insomnia, and alcohol withdrawal.


Understanding the Risks of Barbiturates and Benzodiazepines

Both barbiturates and benzodiazepines come with risks of misuse, addiction, and fatal overdose. In fact, nearly 6 million Americans have misused prescription tranquilizers or sedatives, including both drug classes. The danger increases when these substances are combined with other drugs, significantly increasing the chance of fatal overdoses.

While both classes of drugs produce similar effects, barbiturates are considered more dangerous due to their higher potency and addictive potential. The fine line between a safe and unsafe dosage increases the risk of unintentional overdoses. Barbiturates can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, muscle pain, seizures, and psychosis.

Signs of Barbiturate Addiction

Cognitive impairments, memory loss, poor decision-making, and poor concentration are common signs of barbiturate abuse and addiction. Seeking professional help is crucial in these cases, as withdrawal from barbiturates can be challenging and may lead to life-threatening complications.

Barbiturates and benzodiazepines, though similar in their sedative effects, are significantly different in terms of the way they work, their potency, and addictiveness. While benzodiazepines have become a safer alternative to barbiturates, both classes of drugs require careful medical supervision to minimize the risks associated with misuse, addiction, and fatal overdose.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a benzo or barbiturate addiction, don’t hesitate to reach out to Avenues Recovery Center for help. Our experienced team of addiction specialists are waiting to help you. We are committed to providing the highest standard of care and support to every individual. We use a wide array of therapies and individualized treatment plans to ensure optimal success. Our talented and devoted staff have helped thousands of people reach real and lasting recovery, and they can help you too. If you are serious about addiction recovery, Avenues is the right place for you. Reach out to us today to take the first step on your recovery journey - we are waiting to offer you care and support!

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