A barbiturate is a type of sedative that was originally used as a sleeping pill. By the 1960s and ’70s, they were being used as a recreational drug. However, using barbiturates can be very dangerous and can easily result in a fatal overdose since the difference between the amount that can make you drowsy and the amount that can cause an overdose is thin. In addition, barbiturate withdrawal is difficult and can also be lethal without proper medical supervision. Due to the danger associated with taking barbiturates, they are not commonly prescribed anymore.

However, some variations are prescribed to treat epilepsy and a few other disorders. For the most part, barbiturates have been replaced with other types of drugs, including benzodiazepines like Valium. Despite these changes, there has been an increase in barbiturate use in recent years among people too young to remember the death and dangers caused by barbiturates during the 1970s.

How Barbiturates Affect the Brain

Barbiturates cause a calming effect on the central nervous system (CNS) by increasing the activity of a chemical in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

This increase in GABA causes muscle relaxation, relieves anxiety and pain, reduces seizures, and induces sleep. Barbiturates usually take effect within about 30 minutes after taking them and last for about 4 to 16 hours.

What you can Expect From Barbiturate Withdrawal

Because barbiturate withdrawal can be very dangerous, it should not be attempted at home. In fact, up to 75 percent of people withdrawing from barbiturates experience seizures and up to 66 percent may experience delirium that lasts a few days. Symptoms of barbiturate withdrawal include:

  • Tremors
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Hallucinations
  • High temperature
  • Seizures
  • Heart failure
  • Death

Barbiturate Withdrawal Timeline

Minor withdrawal symptoms start about 8 to 12 hours after taking the last dose. These barbiturate withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Muscle twitching
  • Hand tremors
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Distorted vision
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Low blood pressure

Major barbiturate withdrawal symptoms usually develop about 16 hours after the last dose. These symptoms may last for about five days and can include convulsions and/or delirium.

Barbiturate withdrawal symptoms may continue for several months or years, particularly the mental and emotional symptoms.

What are the Barbiturate Withdrawal Treatment Steps?

Barbiturate withdrawal can be dangerous and even deadly. Due to this, it should be completed under medical supervision. It’s also recommended to follow a full continuum of treatment to ensure the best opportunity for a successful recovery. A full continuum of treatment starts with the medical detox process. Then you progress in stages from a residential to an outpatient level of treatment.


Detox is the first stage of withdrawal treatment for barbiturate withdrawal. The goal during detox is medical stabilization. The detox stage usually lasts from a few days to up to a week. When you arrive, you will complete a medical assessment to determine your level of addiction and any other medical needs you may have. The assessment will include a medical exam as well as urine or blood tests to screen for drugs.

Your medical team will include doctors, nurses, and support staff. The team will monitor you around the clock to help manage uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and prevent dangerous sedative withdrawal symptoms.

In addition to medical care, your treatment plan will also include emotional support as you begin addiction therapy. This is because many people also experience anxiety, depression, as well as other emotional and psychological challenges as they detox. When you are medically stabilized, a longer-term treatment plan will be designed for you.


If your doctor determines that you require further medical treatment, you will continue with the next stage of treatment on a residential basis. This may be due to co-occurring medical conditions or further post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS). This level of treatment is highly structured and also includes 24/7 medical monitoring. You will begin seeing a therapist regularly at this stage.


The partial-hospitalization program (PHP) can be seen as a blend of residential care and outpatient treatment. To better prepare you for success, you may stay at a transitional living facility. PHP will be a supportive and structured treatment program five days a week for six hours each day.

During this stage, you will attend individual, group, and family therapy programs to address your emotional and mental health needs. Your focus will be on learning positive life skills, coping mechanisms, and techniques to help prevent relapse, which will help you to be better prepared for long-term recovery. The goal of this training is to help you begin the process of returning to your life outside the treatment center.

Intensive Outpatient

The intensive outpatient program (IOP) allows you to live at home while still attending counseling and programs to help support you in your recovery process. Depending on your treatment plan, you will participate in about nine or more hours of clinical therapy each week. You will attend these sessions several times over the course of each week. Your goal will be to continue to learn ways to cope with cravings, stress, and other issues that may come up.


The last stage of treatment is the outpatient stage. At this point, you will receive less than nine hours of therapy each week. You will continue to receive support with relapse prevention strategies and other tools to help you be successful as you regain your independence. Once you have completed outpatient treatment, you will transition into aftercare as part of the treatment program alumni.


After completing the formal addiction treatment program, you will have the chance to meet other program alumni during weekly support groups and social events. These opportunities to meet other program graduates provide ways to help you develop new friendships and build social support with others who understand what it means to be in recovery.

This support network can help you grow and stay focused on your recovery while you continue to adjust to life after the treatment program. It can be a great way to share relapse prevention strategies and new experiences, plus techniques to manage stress and frustration. Perhaps most importantly, it can simply be a way to enjoy spending time with new friends.

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