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What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates have historically been used to treat sleeplessness.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2014
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Barbiturates are a class of drugs which have historically been used as sedatives and anesthetics. They have been largely replaced by the benzodiazepines, although there are still some settings in which barbiturates are used and several drug companies continue to produce these drugs. Barbiturate use needs to be carefully monitored and controlled because these drugs can be dangerous, and they can also be highly addictive.

These drugs are formulated on a base of barbituric acid, which acts on the central nervous system. In low doses, barbiturates can have a sedative effect, which is one reason they were historically used to address anxiety and sleeplessness. These drugs are also used in the control of seizures, as their depressive effect on the central nervous system appears to help with controlling seizures. In higher doses, barbiturates cause a loosening of inhibitions, and they can have an anesthetic effect.

Some hospitals utilize barbiturates during the induction of anesthesia, or in procedures where sedation is needed. In this case, the drugs are administered by an anesthesiologist, and they are tightly controlled, limiting the opportunity for abuse. Prescriptions for pills and injectable solutions may be given to patients who need to use barbiturates at home if other drugs are not available.

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Some examples of barbiturates include sodium pentathol, phenobarbital, and secobarbital. One serious problem with barbiturates is that when they depress the central nervous system, they also lower breathing and heart rate. A high dose can cause someone to die, and overdoses are a cause for concern among medical providers. People who need to take such drugs are given specific advice about dosing, and strongly advised to keep the drugs in a secured area so that they cannot be taken accidentally.

The reduction in prescriptions of barbiturates has radically lowered rates of abuse, and has contributed to a significant decline in deaths or serious injuries due to overdose. However, individuals who abuse drugs can still seek out alternatives, which may be more or less dangerous than this class of drugs. People who are attempting to curb abusive habits may opt to attend a residential treatment facility so that they can be helped with their addiction and the unpleasant side effects associated with the cessation of drug use.

Veterinarians use barbiturates in euthanasia, and these drugs have also been advocated for use in physician assisted suicide, a practice which is highly controversial in many regions of the world. In cases where the drugs are being used deliberately to induce death, it is important to use the correct dosage, to avoid a situation such as survival with severe brain damage.

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