Barbiturate Overdose

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What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are a class of medications known for their ability to induce relaxation and drowsiness in individuals. They are used for anesthesia and to treat epilepsy, non-epileptic seizures, insomnia, and various other conditions. Barbiturates slow brain activity by increasing a brain chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid.) They are part of the sedative-hypnotic class of medications. Due to their calming effects, it's sadly far too easy to have a barbiturate overdose.

Barbiturates come in various forms, from short-acting to long-acting, each with distinct medical uses and potential risks. Short-acting barbiturates are typically prescribed to induce sleep, while long-acting ones are employed to maintain sedation over a more extended period. Barbiturates are used less commonly nowadays due to the risk of abuse and some unpleasant side effects.

Barbiturates, once widely used as sedatives [1], can lead to dangerous intoxication when misused or taken in excessive amounts. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of barbiturate intoxication is crucial for early intervention and potentially life-saving treatment.

What Does Barbiturate Intoxication Look Like?

Symptoms in the initial stages of barbiturate intoxication can include:

  • slurred speech
  • Impaired coordination
  • drowsiness

As the intoxication progresses more severely, signs may manifest, including:

  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Mood swings
  • Sluggish reflexes
  • Impaired judgment

In cases of barbiturate overdose, the symptoms can escalate rapidly and become life-threatening. Breathing may become slow and shallow, posing a severe risk of respiratory failure. Cyanosis, a bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes may also occur due to the lack of oxygen in the bloodstream.

Other alarming signs of barbiturate overdose include extreme lethargy, coma, and seizures. If left untreated, barbiturate intoxication can lead to death.

If you suspect someone is experiencing barbiturate intoxication or overdose, seek immediate medical assistance. Healthcare professionals can provide vital supportive care, including keeping a patient’s airways open, assisting with breathing, and administering specific treatments to mitigate the effects of the drug.

Prevention and education are key in combatting barbiturate intoxication. Understanding the risks associated with these drugs and promoting responsible use under medical supervision is essential to safeguarding public health and well-being.

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What Is Barbiturate Overdose or Barbiturate Poisoning?

Barbiturate overdose occurs when a person takes an amount of barbiturates that is poisonous to their body. A person can overdose accidentally or they can overdose intentionally to end their own life.  Barbiturate overdose can also occur when someone mixes barbiturates with other drugs, particularly alcohol or other central nervous system depressants.

What Are Barbiturate Overdose Symptoms?

Barbiturate overdose symptoms typically include:

  • Difficulty thinking
  • Poor coordination
  • Decreased level of consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing

What Does Acute Barbiturate Poisoning Look Like?

Signs of barbiturate poisoning could include: 

  • Unfocused or rapidly shifting eyes
  • Unusually large or small pupils (the black point in the center of your eye)
  • Muscle weakness
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Blue tint to lips or fingernails
  • Shallow breathing
  • Skin turning clammy
  • Weak and rapid pulse
  • Respiratory failure
  • Progression into a state of coma
  • Death

What Are Some Barbiturate Antidotes?

While no specific antidote exists for barbiturate toxicity, here are some therapeutic strategies that have shown promise in mitigating the harmful effects of these drugs:

  • Medical Care: In cases of overdose, immediate medical attention is crucial. Healthcare professionals focus on stabilizing vital signs, maintaining proper oxygenation (breathing), and ensuring a clear airway to reduce the risk of complications.
  • Activated Charcoal: Administering activated charcoal can help absorb unabsorbed barbiturates in the gastrointestinal tract, limiting their absorption into the bloodstream.
  • Alkalinization: In cases of severe overdose, healthcare providers may use intravenous sodium bicarbonate to alkalinize the blood. This approach enhances the renal elimination of barbiturates (through the kidneys) and may reduce their toxicity.
  • Urinary Alkalinization: Increasing urine pH by administering substances like sodium bicarbonate enhances the excretion of barbiturates through the kidneys.
  • Hemodialysis: For life-threatening cases of barbiturate overdose, hemodialysis may be employed to facilitate the removal of the drug from the bloodstream.

It is crucial to emphasize that the best course of action in barbiturate overdose cases is immediate medical intervention and professional care. Additionally, prevention is paramount, and using barbiturates should be closely monitored and regulated by qualified healthcare providers to minimize the risk of overdose.

As research continues, there remains hope for developing more specific and effective barbiturate antidotes in the future. It should be mentioned that if one takes barbiturates for medical reasons, and takes it exactly as prescribed, there is a minimal chance of overdose.

Responding to a Barbiturate Overdose


The following steps should be employed if you suspect someone has overdosed on barbiturates:

  1. Call for Help: Dial 911 for emergency services immediately to get professional medical assistance on the way.
  2. Monitor Vital Signs: While waiting for help to arrive, monitor the person's breathing, heart rate, and consciousness level. If they become unresponsive, be prepared to perform CPR if you're trained to do so.
  3.  Do Not Attempt Home Remedies: Avoid giving the person any food, water, or other substances, as this may worsen the situation. 
  4. Provide Information: If possible, inform the medical professionals about the type and amount of barbiturate ingested, as well as any other substances or medications taken.
  5. Seek Medical Attention: Once medical help arrives, the person will likely be taken to the hospital for further evaluation and treatment. The medical team will manage the overdose with measures such as activated charcoal to limit absorption and provide supportive care, including oxygen therapy and intravenous fluids.

Remember, barbiturate overdose is a serious and life-threatening condition that requires prompt medical intervention. Do not hesitate to seek professional help immediately.

How Can I Treat A Barbiturate Addiction?

There are several ways to treat a barbiturate addiction:

  • Medical Detoxification: The first step in treating barbiturate addiction is typically a medically supervised detoxification process. Abruptly stopping barbiturate use can lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms, including seizures, so detoxification should be done under close medical supervision to manage and alleviate withdrawal symptoms.
  • Inpatient or Outpatient Rehabilitation: After detoxification, individuals may undergo inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation programs. Inpatient programs provide 24/7 care in a controlled environment, while outpatient programs allow individuals to attend treatment sessions while living at home. The choice of the program depends on the severity of the addiction and the individual's needs.
  • Behavioral Therapy: Behavioral therapies are a crucial part of addiction treatment. They help individuals identify and change harmful thought patterns and behaviors related to substance abuse. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Contingency Management are examples of evidence-based therapies commonly used to treat addiction.
  • Support Groups: Participation in support groups like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can provide valuable peer support and encouragement during the recovery journey. These groups offer a sense of community and shared experiences, helping individuals stay committed to sobriety.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): In some cases, healthcare providers may prescribe medications to help manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings. However, it's essential to use medication under medical supervision and as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
  • Holistic Approaches: Complementary therapies such as yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, and art therapy can complement traditional addiction treatments and promote overall well-being.
  • Aftercare: Successful recovery often requires ongoing support after completing a formal treatment program. Aftercare plans may involve ongoing therapy, support group attendance, and regular check-ins with healthcare providers.

Barbiturate addictions are very tough to overcome on your own. Our professional and experienced addiction counselors can help you overcome your addiction, prevent an overdose and regain your quality of life. If you or a loved one suffer from a barbiturate addiction, reach out to us at Avenues Recovery so we can guide you on your path to recovery.

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