Barbiturates were first introduced for medical use in the early 1900s. More than 2,500 barbiturates have been synthesized, and at the height of their popularity, about 50 were marketed for human use. Today, about a dozen are in medical use. Barbiturates produce a wide spectrum of central nervous system depression, from mild sedation to coma, and have been used as sedatives, hypnotics, anesthetics, and anticonvulsants. The primary differences among many of these products are how fast they produce an effect and how long those effects last. Barbiturates are classified as ultrashort, short, intermediate, and long-acting.

The ultrashort-acting barbiturates produce anesthesia within about one minute after intravenous administration. Those in current medical use are the Schedule IV drug methohexital (Brevital®), and the Schedule III drugs thiamyl (Surital®) and thiopental (Pentothal®).
Barbiturate abusers prefer the Schedule II short-acting and intermediate-acting barbiturates that include amobarbital (Amyta®), pentobarbital (Nembutal®), secobarbital (Seconal®), and Tuinal (an amobarbital/secobarbital combination product).
Other short and intermediate-acting barbiturates are in Schedule III and include butalbital (Fiorina®), butabarbital (Butisol®), talbutal (Lotusate®), and aprobarbital (Alurate®). After oral administration, the onset of action is from 15 to 40 minutes, and the effects last up to six hours.
These drugs are primarily used for insomnia and preoperative sedation. Veterinarians use pentobarbital for anesthesia and euthanasia.

Long-acting barbiturates include phenobarbital (Luminal®) and mephobarbital (Mebaral®), both of which are in Schedule IV. Effects of these drugs are realized in about one hour and last for about 12 hours, and are used primarily for daytime sedation and the treatment of seizure disorders.

Contraindications / Precautions:
  • Euthanasia solutions are not necessarily sterile and are not suitable for use as general anaesthetic agents. (B201.6.w6)
  • Caution in individuals with hypovolaemia, anaemia, borderline hypoadrenal function, cardiac disease, respiratory disease.
  • Large doses are contraindicated in individuals with nephritis or with severe respiratory dysfunction. (B263)
  • Barbiturates are contraindicated in individuals with previous hypersensitivity reactions to barbiturates. (B263)
  • Barbiturates are contraindicated in individuals with severe hepatic disease/impairment. (B201.6.w6, B263)
  • Not recommended for anaesthesia for caesarean section due to respiratory depression of the fetus(es). (B263)
  • In cats: caution is required as these animals are particularly sensitive to the respiratory depressant effect of barbiturates; female cats are particularly susceptible to this drug. (B263)
  • Do not administer intra-arterially. (B263)
  • With intravenous administration, slow injection is required for assessment of the effects and avoidance of overdose. (B205.5.w5)
  • For euthanasia:
    • Intracardiac injection should not be used for euthanasia of conscious animals, as it is painful. (B201.6.w6)
    • In horses: excitement may occur; if pentobarbitone sodium is used for euthanasia it should be preceded by a short-acting barbiturate or a sedative (e.g. an alpha2-adrenoceptor agonist). (B201.6.w6)
    • Animals given 200mg/ml pentobarbital sodium should not be used for animal or human consumption. (B201.6.w6)

    Drugs include:

    Drug name

    Brand name

    Street name

    Therapeutic dose range

    Amylobarbitone Amytal and Amytal Sodium   60-200mg
    Butobarbitone Soneryl   100-200mg
    Prominal   100-600mg
    Pentobarbitone Nembutal Nembies 100-200mg
    Phenobarbitone Luminal   60-180mg
    Quinalbarbitone Seconal Sodium Seggies 50-100mg
    and amylobarbitone
    Tuinal Chewies 100-200mg

    Brand names: Amytal and Amytal Sodium, Soneryl, Prominal, Nembutal, Luminal, Tuinal.

    Street names: Angels (Amytal), Nembies (Nembutal), Chewies (Tuinal).

    Street use: Barbiturates can be swallowed but more often heavy users dissolve the powders in water and inject.

    Drug effect: Barbiturates are depressants or ‘downers’. They work by depressing the activity of the entire nervous system. At low doses they decrease motor activity and produce sedation and drowsiness. Paradoxically they may produce excitement, elation and euphoria, slurred speech and general weariness. At high doses, barbiturates further decrease cognitive activity, distort judgement and provoke hypnosis. Higher doses produce anaesthesia.

    Dependency: Develops very rapidly as the level of the drug increases.

    Withdrawal: Symptoms appear within 24 hours of the last dose, peak about the second day and then fade over the next week. Symptoms include: restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia. Among heavy users there may be delirium and seizure. This is particularly likely to follow sudden withdrawal and so doses should be reduced gradually over time.

    Long-term use: Can lead to chronic inebriation, aggressive behaviour, impaired judgement and severe insomnia.

    Overdose risk: Although tolerance develops rapidly, the gap between a safe (for a heavy user) and lethal dose is very narrow and so accidental overdoses are very common. Large doses can lead to respiratory failure, coma and eventual death. Overdose risk increases if mixed with other drugs such as cocaine, alcohol and opiates.


    Contraindications for barbiturates: Porphyria, liver kidney disease, Emphysema,

    Risk in pregnancy: Large doses of some barbiturates in pregnancy have been associated with congenital malformations.

    Barbiturates are drugs that act as central nervous system depressants, and by virtue of this they produce a wide spectrum of effects, from mild sedation to anesthesia. They are also effective as anxiolytics, hypnotics and as anticonvulsants. They have addiction potential, both physical and psychological. Barbiturates have now largely been replaced by benzodiazepines mainly because benzodiazepines are significantly less dangerous in overdose. Barbiturates are derivatives of barbituric acid.
    Barbituric acid was first synthesized on December 6, 1864, by German researcher Adolf Von Baeyer. This was done by condensing urea (an animal waste product) with diethyl malonate (an ester derived from the acid of apples).

    While barbituric acid itself does not have any effect on the central nervous system, to date, chemists have derived over 2,500 compounds that do possess pharmacologically active qualities. The broad class of barbiturates is broken down further and classified according to speed of onset and duration of action. Ultrashort-acting barbiturates are commonly used for anesthesia because their extremely short duration of action allows for greater control. These properties allow doctors to rapidly put a patient "under" in emergency surgery situations. Doctors can also bring a patient out of anesthesia just as quickly should complications arise during surgery. The middle two classes of barbiturates are often combined under the title "short/intermediate-acting."


    These barbiturates are also employed for anesthetic purposes, and are also sometimes prescribed for anxiety or insomnia. This is not a common practice anymore, however, owing to the dangers of long term use of barbiturates; they have been replaced by the benzodiazepines for these purposes. The final class of barbiturates are known as long-acting barbiturates (most notably phenobarbital, which has a half-life of roughly 92 hours). This class of barbiturates is used almost exclusively as anticonvulsants, although on rare occasions they are prescribed for daytime sedation. Barbiturates in this class are not used for insomnia, because owing to their extremely long half-life, patients would awake with a residual "hang-over" effect and feel groggy. No substance of medical value was discovered, however, until 1903 when two German chemists working at Bayer, Emil Fischer and Joseph von Mering, discovered that barbital was very effective in putting dogs to sleep. Barbital was then marketed by Bayer under the trade name Veronal. It is said that Von Mering proposed this name because the most peaceful place he knew was the Italian city of Verona.[1]


    Barbiturates can in most cases be used as either the free acid or as salts of sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, lithium, etc. Codeine- and Dionine-based salts of barbituric acid have been developed. In 1912, Bayer introduced another barbituric acid derivative, phenobarbital, under the trade name Luminal, as a sedative-hypnotic.[2]


    Therapeutic uses

    Barbiturates like pentobarbital and phenobarbital were long used as anxiolytics and hypnotics. Today benzodiazepines have largely supplanted them for these purposes, because benzodiazepines have less potential for lethal overdoses.[3][4][5]

    Barbiturates are classified as ultrashort-, short-, intermediate-, and long-acting, depending on how quickly they act and how long their effects last.[6] Barbiturates are still widely used in surgical anesthesia, especially to induce anesthesia, though their use during induction of anesthesia has largely been supplanted by Propofol. Ultrashort barbiturates such as thiopental (Pentothal) produce unconsciousness within about a minute of intravenous (IV) injection. These drugs are used to prepare patients for surgery; other general anesthetics like nitrous oxide are then used to keep the patient from waking up before the surgery is complete. Because Pentothal and other ultrashort-acting barbiturates are typically used in hospital settings, they are not very likely to be abused, noted the DEA.[7]

    Phenobarbital is used as an anticonvulsant for people suffering from seizure disorders such as febrile seizures, tonic-clonic seizures, status epilepticus, and eclampsia.[8]

    Long-acting barbiturates such as phenobarbital (Luminal) and mephobarbital (Mebaral) are prescribed for two main reasons. When taken at bedtime, they help treat insomnia. When taken during the day, they have sedative effects that can aid in the treatment of tension and anxiety. These same effects have been found helpful in the treatment of convulsive conditions like epilepsy. Phenobarbital has also been used in the treatment of delirium tremens during alcohol detoxification, although benzodiazepines have a more favorable safety profile and are more often used.[9] Long-acting barbiturates take effect within one to two hours and last 12 hours or longer.[7]

    Other non-therapeutic uses

    Barbiturates in high doses are used for physician-assisted suicide (PAS), and in combination with a muscle relaxant for euthanasia and for capital punishment by lethal injection.[10][11] Thiopental, an ultra-short acting barbiturate that is marketed under the name Sodium Pentothal, is sometimes used as a "truth serum". When dissolved in water, it can be swallowed or administered by intravenous injection. The drug does not itself force people to tell the truth, but is thought to decrease inhibitions, making subjects more likely to be caught off guard when questioned.[12]

     Mechanism of action

    The principal mechanism of action of barbiturates is believed to be their affinity for the GABAA receptor (Acts on GABA : BDZ receptor Cl- channel complex). GABA is the principal inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system (CNS). Barbiturates bind to the GABAA receptor at the alpha subunit, which are binding sites distinct from GABA itself and also distinct from the benzodiazepine binding site. Like benzodiazepines, barbiturates potentiate the effect of GABA at this receptor. In addition to this GABA-ergic effect, barbiturates also block the AMPA receptor, a subtype of glutamate receptor. Glutamate is the principal excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian CNS. Taken together, the findings that barbiturates potentiate inhibitory GABAA receptors and inhibit excitatory AMPA receptors can explain the CNS-depressant effects of these agents. At higher concentration they inhibit the Ca2+ dependent release of neurotransmitters.[8] Barbiturates produce their pharmacological effects by increasing the duration of chloride ion channel opening at the GABAA receptor (pharmacokinetics: this increases the efficacy of GABA) whereas benzodiazepines increase the frequency of the chloride ion channel opening at the GABAA receptor (pharmacokinetics: this increases the potency of GABA). The direct gating or opening of the chloride ion channel is the reason for the increased toxicity of barbiturates compared to benzodiazepines in overdose.[13][14]

     Tolerance, dependence and overdose

    Older adults and pregnant women should consider the risks associated with barbiturate use. When a person ages, the body becomes less able to rid itself of barbiturates. As a result, people over the age of sixty-five are at higher risk of experiencing the harmful effects of barbiturates, including drug dependence and accidental overdose.[15] When barbiturates are taken during pregnancy, the drug passes through the mother's bloodstream to her fetus. After the baby is born, it may experience withdrawal symptoms and have trouble breathing. In addition, nursing mothers who take barbiturates may transmit the drug to their babies through breast milk.[16]

    Tolerance and dependence

    With regular use tolerance to the effects of barbiturates develops. This in turn may lead to a need for increasing doses of the drug to get the original desired pharmacological or therapeutic effect.[17] Barbiturate use can lead to both psychological and physical dependence and the drugs have a high abuse liability.[18] Psychological addiction to barbiturates can develop quickly. The GABAA receptor, one of barbiturates' main sites of action, is thought to play a pivotal role in the development of tolerance to and dependence on barbiturates, as well as the euphoric "high" that results from their abuse.[18] The mechanism by which barbiturate tolerance develops is believed to be different than that of ethanol or benzodiazepines, even though these drugs have been shown to exhibit cross-tolerance with each other.[19]


    An overdose results when a person takes a larger-than-prescribed dose of a drug. Symptoms of an overdose typically include; sluggishness, incoordination, difficulty in thinking, slowness of speech, faulty judgment, drowsiness or coma, shallow breathing, staggering and in severe cases coma and death.[20] The lethal dosage of barbiturates varies greatly with tolerance and from one individual to another. Even in inpatient settings, however, the development of tolerance is still a problem, as dangerous and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms can result when the drug is stopped after dependence has developed.[17] Barbiturates in overdose with other CNS depressants for example, alcohol, opiates or benzodiazepines is even more dangerous due to additive CNS and respiratory depressant effects. In the case of benzodiazepines not only do they have additive effects, barbiturates also increase the binding affinity of the benzodiazepine binding site thus leading to an exagerated effect of benzodiazepines.[21]


    Recreational use

    Like ethanol, barbiturates are intoxicating and produce similar effects during intoxication. The symptoms of barbiturate intoxication include respiratory depression, lowered blood pressure, fatigue, fever, unusual excitement, irritability, dizziness, poor concentration, sedation, confusion, impaired coordination, impaired judgment, addiction, and respiratory arrest which may lead to death.[22]

    Recreational users report that a barbiturate high gives them feelings of relaxed contentment and euphoria. The main risk of acute barbiturate abuse is respiratory depression. Physical and psychological dependence may also develop with repeated use.[23] Other effects of barbiturate intoxication include drowsiness, lateral and vertical nystagmus, slurred speech and ataxia, decreased anxiety, a loss of inhibitions. Barbiturates are also misused to alleviate the adverse or withdrawal effects of illicit drug misuse.[24][25]

    Drug users tend to prefer short-acting and intermediate-acting barbiturates.[26] The most commonly abused are amobarbital (Amytal), pentobarbital (Nembutal), and secobarbital (Seconal). A combination of amobarbital and secobarbital (called Tuinal) is also highly abused. Short-acting and intermediate-acting barbiturates are usually prescribed as sedatives and sleeping pills. These pills begin acting fifteen to forty minutes after they are swallowed, and their effects last from five to six hours. Veterinarians use pentobarbital to anesthetise animals before surgery; in large doses, it can be used to euthanise animals.[7]

    Slang terms for barbiturates include; barbs, bluebirds, blues, downers, goofballs, tooties and yellow jackets.[