Barbiturates were introduced into medical practice during the early 1900s, for combating insomnia, anxiety, and seizures. Despite occasional flurries of concern, not until the 1960s did much alarm grow about barbiturates in the United States. Members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee began portraying the drug class as a menace in the 1970s, and afterward stricter controls were put on use.
Barbiturates and alcohol have similar effects. If someone intoxicated by alcohol takes barbiturates, the drunkenness will deepen as if more alcohol had been swallowed.
Pharmaceutical effects of alcohol alone can kill a person who overdoses, and adding barbiturates can transform a session of social drinking into a fatal one. More than one person has died by taking barbiturate sleeping pills with alcohol instead of water.
The similarity of alcohol and barbiturates is also shown by the appearance of a serious withdrawal syndrome called delirium tremens in alcohol and barbiturate abusers who are cut off from their drug. Lesser withdrawal symptoms for both drugs may include perspiring and vomiting. Barbiturate withdrawal may involve dizziness, tremors, fidgety behavior, edgy feelings, and insomnia. Even with strict medical supervision, withdrawal can be fatal. Tolerance can develop. More details can be found in alphabetical entries for spec barbiturates.
A person using barbiturates should take the same precautions as a person using alcohol, for example, using care about running dangerous machinery such as automobiles.
Barbiturates can cause reflex sympathetic dystrophy of the arm, a disease in which a hand loses bone density and becomes painful and difficult to move. This class of drugs may also cause a syndrome that produces pain in the shoulder and hand, interfering with their movement.
Extended dosage with barbiturates may cause rickets, a disease in which bones soften. One of the most dangerous effects of barbiturate overdose is temporary stoppage of electrical activity in the brain, which could lead to premature declaration of a patient’s death, particularly if the patient is being treated for some injury without caregivers knowing about the person’s barbiturate usage.
This class of substances may interfere with blood thinner medicine, with birth control pills, and with other female hormone medications. Barbiturates may extend the time that an MAOI dose lasts.
In animal experiments barbiturates have encouraged the development of cancer.
When used by pregnant women, barbiturates can cause birth defects ranging from internal organ deformities to malformations of the face. If a pregnant woman uses barbiturates regularly, her offspring may be born resonant with them. This class of drugs passes into the milk of nursing mothers and may depress consciousness, pulse rate, and respiration of nursing infants.
For information about specific barbiturate class depressants, see alphabetical listings for: butalbital, mephobarbital, pentobarbital, and phenobarbital.