What are Barbiturates?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Barbiturates are an older version of currently used tranquillizers or sedatives that act by depressing the nervous system. These are one of the oldest sedatives that are in use.

They are prescribed to patients with sleep disorders and other mental illnesses to calm them down and put them to sleep.

Due to their side effects and increased risk of dependence and abuse and also the large number of fatal accidents that result due to their misuse they are largely replaced by safer agents called tranquillizers.

How they are available?

Barbiturates are rarely prescribed these days due to their safety concerns. They are prescribed for certain indications. Patients may take these drugs in the form of capsules with the powder form of the drug within them.

Effects of barbiturates

In small doses, barbiturates relieve insomnia or difficulty in sleeping. They relieve anxiety and tension.

There may be a hangover or residual sleepiness. Users may appear drunk and experience loss of balance and co-ordination.


The normal therapeutic dose range is small and thus there is a high risk of overdose. Many persons may overdose barbiturates without being aware.

Overdose carries the risk of serious side effects and depression of the respiratory center that may cause death. Barbiturates also interact with alcohol and drugs of abuse like heroin in a life threatening manner.

Side effects

Over long term use there is a risk of severe side effects. Barbiturates are highly addictive and dependence may develop over long term use. Those who are long term users are also at risk of pneumonia and bronchitis.

With long term use there is risk of developing extreme mood swings, bouts of depression, impaired memory, judgement, coordination, altered sleep schedules and insomnia and intense weakness and fatigue.

Types of barbituate

Commonly used barbiturates include:-

  • Amylobarbitone
  • Methyl phenobarbitone
  • Pentobarbitone
  • Butobarbitone
  • Phenobarbitone
  • Quinalbarbitone

What are they used for?

Barbiturates are used for:-

  • Pentobarbitone or thiopentone is used in induction of general anesthesia
  • Phenobarbitone and Pentobarbitone is used in some cases of epilepsy
  • Sedation and hypnosis to calm the patient and induce sleep

Legal status of barbiturates

Barbiturates are a prescription-only medicine and a class B controlled drug (Schedules 2 and 3). This indicates that it is illegal to possess the drug without a prescription or to supply it to others.

Injectable barbiturates are class A drugs. For possession of barbiturates injections the maximum penalty is seven years imprisonment and/or unlimited fine.

For dealing in these injectable barbiturates there may be life sentence and/or unlimited fine.

For possession of barbiturates capsules the maximum penalty is five years imprisonment and/or unlimited fine. For dealing in these capsule barbiturates there may be 14 years imprisonment and/or unlimited fine.

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Oct 7, 2014

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