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Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose

Last updated March 23, 2018

milo tobin

Barbiturates are a category of drugs that depress the central nervous system, causing relaxation and sleepiness. Barbiturates are primarily used to treat anxiety; however, due to their high potential for abuse and overdose, they are illegal to use without a proper physician’s prescription.


What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Synonyms)

  • Downers Intoxication

What is Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose? (Definition/Background Information)

  • Barbiturates are a category of drugs that depress the central nervous system, causing relaxation and sleepiness
  • Barbiturates are primarily used to treat anxiety; however, due to their high potential for abuse and overdose, they are illegal to use without a proper physician’s prescription
  • These drugs are somewhat dangerous drugs, as there is little differentiation between the toxic and therapeutic dose. This means that even taking one extra (drug) dose over the prescription limit, can cause toxicity symptoms. Their therapeutic uses have become limited now, as newer drugs have been formulated to produce the same kind of effects without the risk of overdose
  • Elderly people and women are at higher risk of Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose
  • The common signs and symptoms of intoxication and overdose include altered consciousness level, drowsiness, fatigue, slurred speech, staggering gait, and shallow breathing
  • There is no specific antidote available for barbiturate overdose; the treatment generally involves providing respiratory support, such as through a breathing machine, until the drug is cleared from the body
  • The prognosis of Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose is generally guarded; it depends on many factors

Who gets Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose is commonly observed in women more than men, as women are more likely to seek professional help for anxiety and depression
  • Elderly adults have a high risk of intoxication and overdose

What are the Risk Factors for Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose? (Predisposing Factors)

Risk factors associated with Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose includes the use of the following medications that may be prescribed for various health conditions:

  • Phenobarbital
  • Butalbital
  • Methohexital
  • Secobarbital
  • Amobarbital
  • Pentobarbital

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose? (Etiology)

  • Barbiturates are antidepressant drugs primarily prescribed for anxiety and sleep-related disorders. They act on the central nervous system causing a wide array of effects. An overdose of barbiturates results in intoxication
  • Taking more than the prescribed dose or illegally ingesting a higher amount of this drug results in Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose
  • Mixing barbiturates with other substances, such as alcohol, amphetamines, or heroin, are common causes of overdose as well, because these substances potentiate the effects of barbiturates

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose?

The signs and symptoms of Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose may include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Delayed thought process
  • Altered level of consciousness
  • Fatigue, drowsiness
  • Shallow breathing
  • Lack of coordination, staggering
  • Lack of proper judgment
  • Coma

How is Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose Diagnosed?

Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose can be diagnosed with various tests. The diagnosis may involve:

  • Complete evaluation of patient’s history along with a thorough physical exam
  • Urine and blood screening for barbiturates
  • Electrocardiography performed to see the drug effect on the heart
  • Arterial blood gas measurement to see the amount of oxygen in blood
  • Complete blood cell count
  • Glucose screen
  • Blood ethanol concentration to ensure that there is no associated intoxication with alcohol

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose?

Complications associated with Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose includes:

  • Memory loss
  • Irritability
  • Lack of awareness
  • Decreased cognitive functioning
  • Coma

How is Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose Treated?

The treatment of Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose may include:

  • There is no specific antidote for barbiturate intoxication or overdose
  • Breathing support with the help of breathing machines, until the drug is completely cleared from the body
  • When there is associated intoxication with opioids, naloxone is given to overcome opioids intoxication, which will rapidly restore breathing and consciousness

How can Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose be Prevented?

  • Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose can be completely prevented by abstaining from the non-prescriptive use of the drug
  • If the drug is prescribed for a health condition, then follow directions thoroughly and carefully. Also, make sure to communicate openly with the healthcare provider, so that your questions and concerns regarding barbiturates are addressed properly
  • Additionally, keep the prescribed drug properly labeled and stored securely and safely

What is the Prognosis of Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

  • Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose leads to a serious medical condition. The prognosis depends on the amount of overdose and health condition of the individual
  • However, about 1 in 10 individuals die of drug intoxication and overdose, or due to a mixture overdose (i.e., barbiturate taken along with alcohol and opioids)
  • Deaths associated with the condition are typically due to respiratory and cardiac failure

Additional and Relevant Useful Information for Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose:

Most of the time, Barbiturate Intoxication and Overdose usually involves a combination of drugs that typically includes alcohol and opioids.

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?


References and Information Sources used for the Article:


Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:


Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: May 28, 2015
Last updated: March 23, 2018