Barbiturates are a class of central nervous system depressant medications. They are considered controlled substances in the U.S. as the potential for barbiturate abuse and dependence is comparatively high. Barbiturates are also one of only three drug categories with potentially fatal withdrawal side effects. Alcohol and Benzodiazepines are the other two.
All three carry a serious risk of fatal seizures in withdrawal if a person stops taking them abruptly without proper medical supervision. Barbiturate abuse typically begins in one of two ways. Either someone has been prescribed barbiturates and begins taking a higher dose than prescribed, or a person buys this medication illegally online or off the street.
Barbiturate Abuse is Less Common Today
Barbiturates have fallen out of favor somewhat in recent decades. Before the advent and growth in popularity of benzodiazepines, they were the “go-to” prescription sedative. It is said that the “mother’s little helper” The Rolling Stones referred to in the eponymous tune was the barbiturate meprobamate, sold under the brand name Miltown which was popular in the 1960s. Benzodiazepines have largely supplanted barbiturates now for controlling anxiety as they have fewer side effects.
But both are roughly equal in addictive potential and danger they present in withdrawal. Like benzodiazepines, barbiturates increase the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. These days barbiturates are more commonly used to control seizures or in hospital settings, although butalbital combined with acetaminophen is still prescribed as a migraine headache medicine.