Barbiturate Overdose: Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment

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Barbiturate overdose is often a life-threatening experience for those who endure the process without the proper medical treatment. 

As schedule IV controlled substances, barbiturates can be helpful sedatives in medically supervised environments, but also carry a high risk of abuse and addiction when taken outside of a doctor’s recommendation. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with barbiturate abuse, it’s important to reach out for help before addiction progresses to a potential overdose. A treatment program like a Partial Hospitalization Program is a good place to start after detoxing in a medically supervised facility. 

This guide will go over:

  • Are barbiturates addictive?
  • What are barbiturate’s effects on the body?
  • What is a barbiturate overdose?
  • Is barbiturates overdose death possible?
  • What is the most effective barbiturates overdose treatment?
  • How can you connect with barbiturate addiction and overdose treatment in Southern California?
Image of woman representing barbituate overdose

What is A Barbiturate Overdose?

Barbiturate overdose poses significant dangers and can potentially be fatal, as roughly 10% of such cases result in death. Barbiturates are considered lethal when their blood concentration ranges hits barbiturate level 45 (45 mcg/mL to 80 mcg/mL). 

Identifying the signs and symptoms of barbiturate overdose and taking preventative measures can greatly improve outcomes and help avoid fatality.

Most barbiturate overdoses involve a combination of drugs –  alcohol and barbiturates, or barbiturates and opioids like heroin, oxycodone, or fentanyl, for instance. Some people may even take a combination of all these substances. Typically, those who use such drug combinations fall into one of two categories:

  1. Inexperienced individuals who are unaware of the life-threatening risks associated with these combinations.
  2. Those who intentionally combine these substances to alter their consciousness.

Complications that can arise from an overdose include:

  • Head injuries and concussions resulting from falls while intoxicated.
  • Miscarriage in pregnant women or harm to the developing baby in the womb.
  • Neck and spinal injuries, as well as paralysis, due to falls while intoxicated.
  • Pneumonia caused by a suppressed gag reflex and food or fluid entering the lungs through the bronchial tubes.
  • Severe muscle damage from prolonged unconsciousness on a hard surface, potentially leading to permanent kidney injury.
  • Coma.
  • Death.

If you suspect a barbiturate overdose, call 911 immediately.

a woman looks out a window representing barbiturates overdose.

Signs of Barbiturate Overdose

Early signs of barbiturate overdose can manifest in various ways. Recognizing these signs promptly can streamline medical intervention and potentially save a life. 

These are the most common early signs and symptoms of barbiturate poisoning:

  • Drowsiness and sedation: Excessive sleepiness or an overwhelming sense of fatigue is among the short-term effects of barbiturate overdose. The person may struggle to stay awake or appear lethargic.
  • Confusion and disorientation: Barbiturates can impair cognitive function, leading to confusion, disorientation, and difficulty in focusing or making coherent decisions. The affected individual may experience memory lapses or have trouble comprehending their surroundings.
  • Slowed breathing: Barbiturates depress the CNS (central nervous system), causing a reduction in breathing rate. Shallow, slow, or irregular breathing is a significant red flag indicating an overdose.
  • Slurred speech and impaired coordination: Barbiturates can affect motor skills and coordination, causing slurred speech, stumbling, unsteady gait, or poor balance. The person may have difficulty controlling their movements or appear clumsy.
  • Dilated pupils: Another observable sign of barbiturate overdose is dilated pupils. The person’s pupils may appear larger than usual, even in well-lit environments.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Gastrointestinal distress is an early indication of an overdose. The person may feel nauseous, experience persistent vomiting, or have an upset stomach.
  • Mood changes: Barbiturates can cause alterations in mood and behavior. Someone experiencing an overdose may exhibit sudden mood swings, extreme agitation, irritability, or even hostility.
  • Impaired judgment: Barbiturates affect decision-making abilities and can impair judgment. The person may engage in risky or reckless behavior, demonstrating poor decision-making skills.
  • Excessive dizziness: Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or experiencing episodes of vertigo can indicate a barbiturate overdose. The person may struggle to maintain their balance or experience a spinning sensation.
  • Weakness and muscle tremors: Barbiturates can lead to muscle weakness and tremors. The person may have difficulty controlling their movements or exhibit involuntary shaking or trembling.

These early markers of a barbiturate overdose may vary according to the person, the specific barbiturate, and the dosage. If you suspect someone is overdosing on barbiturates, immediately call emergency services or seek medical assistance. Time is of the essence in ensuring proper intervention and treatment if someone has overdosed on barbiturate drugs.

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Symptoms of Barbiturate Overdose

Symptoms of a barbiturate overdose encompass a range of physical and psychological effects that can intensify as the overdose progresses. These include:

  • Respiratory depression: Barbiturates suppress the respiratory system, and an overdose can result in severe respiratory depression, where breathing becomes extremely slow, shallow, or may even stop altogether.
  • Hypothermia: Overdosing on barbiturates can lower body temperature, leading to hypothermia. The person may feel extremely cold to the touch, shiver uncontrollably, or have pale skin.
  • Hypotension: Barbiturate overdose can lead to a significant drop in blood pressure, causing dizziness, lightheadedness, and a potential loss of consciousness.
  • Profound sedation or unresponsiveness: As the overdose progresses, the person may become increasingly sedated, appearing extremely drowsy or unresponsive to stimuli. They may be difficult to rouse or awaken.
  • Loss of motor control and coordination: Barbiturate overdose can result in pronounced loss of coordination and motor control. The person may experience severe muscle weakness, have difficulty moving or performing basic tasks, and may even become immobile.
  • Seizures: In some cases, barbiturate overdose can trigger seizures. These convulsive episodes can range in intensity and duration, posing a significant risk to the person’s safety and well-being.
  • Heart irregularities: Overdosing on barbiturates can lead to cardiac disturbances like irregular heartbeat, palpitations, or arrhythmias. These abnormalities can be life-threatening and require medical attention.
  • Coma: As barbiturate intoxication worsens, the person may slip into a deep coma, characterized by a state of unconsciousness from which they cannot be awakened. Coma resulting from barbiturate overdose is a medical emergency requiring urgent intervention.
  • Respiratory arrest and death: In severe cases, a barbiturate overdose can lead to complete respiratory arrest, with breathing stopping completely. Without prompt clinical intervention, respiratory arrest can quickly lead to death.

Treatment for Barbiturate Overdose

Treatment for barbiturate overdose involves medical intervention to address the potentially life-threatening effects of the overdose. If someone has overdosed on barbiturates, call emergency services immediately. The person needs to be transported to the nearest emergency department for prompt evaluation and treatment.

Upon arrival at the emergency department, healthcare professionals will prioritize stabilizing the person’s vital signs. This may involve administering intravenous fluids, oxygen therapy, and monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation levels.

Supportive care measures aim to maintain the person’s overall well-being during the overdose episode. This may include monitoring and managing their airway, providing respiratory support if necessary, and ensuring proper hydration and nutrition.

In certain cases – if the overdose occurred recently and the person is conscious, for example – healthcare providers may perform gastric lavage (stomach pumping) or administer activated charcoal to help remove the barbiturates from the digestive system. There is currently no barbiturates antidote to perform the role that naloxone plays in countering opioid overdose.

Anyone who has overdosed on barbiturates needs close monitoring, including frequent assessments of their vital signs, level of consciousness, and overall response to treatment. This monitoring helps identify any complications or changes in their condition.

Additional measures may be employed to support the person’s recovery and manage any complications that arise. These can include intravenous fluids to maintain hydration, medications to control seizures or cardiac abnormalities, and measures to prevent aspiration pneumonia.

Barbiturate overdose can have significant psychological and emotional effects on the affected individual and their loved ones. In addition to physical treatment, psychological support like counseling or therapy may be recommended to address the underlying causes of the overdose and provide coping strategies.

Treatment for barbiturate overdose should always be carried out by healthcare professionals in a medical setting. Prompt medical attention can minimize potential complications and improve the chances of a successful recovery.


What is a barbiturate overdose?

Barbiturate overdose meaning is when an individual takes an excessive amount of barbiturates, leading to potentially dangerous or fatal effects on the central nervous system.

What do barbiturates do to a person?

Barbiturates act as central nervous system depressants, producing sedation, relaxation, and a sense of calmness in individuals.

What are barbiturates examples?

Examples of barbiturates include phenobarbital, secobarbital, and pentobarbital.

What class of drugs are barbiturates in?

Barbiturates belong to the class of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics, which depress the CNS (central nervous system) and induce sleep or reduce anxiety.

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Get Treatment for Drug and Alcohol Abuse at Ohio Recovery Centers

At Ohio Recovery Centers, we specialize in offering personalized addiction treatment programs catering to individuals struggling with alcohol, prescription medication, or illicit drug dependencies.

Research indicates that both mild and moderate addictions often respond equally well to intensive outpatient treatment as they do to residential rehabilitation. Not only is outpatient treatment more flexible and cost-effective, but it also maintains a high standard of care. We present a range of programs at our Cincinnati rehab center:

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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
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Christopher Glover CDCA

My name is Christopher Glover, and I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am currently in school and working to grow in competence to better support our community. As a recovering individual I know the struggles that you or a loved one can go through and that there is help for anything you may be struggling with.

The hardest part is asking for help and we are here as a team to best support you and your decision to start your journey towards a better future. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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Amanda Kuchenberg PRS CDCA

I recently joined Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers as a Clinical Case Manager. I am originally from Wisconsin but settled in the Cincinnati area in my early 20s.  My career started in the fashion industry but quickly changed as I searched to find my drive and passion through helping others who struggle with addiction. 

As someone who is also in recovery, I wanted to provide hope, share lived experience, and support others on their journey.  I currently have my Peer Recovery Support Supervision Certification along with my CDCA and plan to continue my education with University of Cincinnati so I can continue to aid in the battle against substance addiction. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.

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Patrick McCamley LCDC III

 Patrick McCamley (Clinical Therapist) is a Cincinnati native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2019. Patrick received his bachelors degree in psychology from University of Cincinnati in 2021 and received his LCDC III (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2022. Patrick has worked in Clinical Operations, Clinical Case Management, and Clinical Therapy throughout his career.

Patrick has tremendous empathy and compassion for the recovery community, being in recovery himself since 2018. Patrick is uniquely qualified to be helpful because of the specific combination of his academic background and his own experience in recovery.

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Bill Zimmerman CDCA

Bill Zimmerman is a Greater Cincinnati Area native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2018. Bill received his (Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2020.

Bill has worked in Clinical Operations in both support and supervision, and Program facilitating and 12 step recovery support during his career. Bill has a passion for the recovery community, having been in recovery himself since 1982. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn

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Taylor Lilley CDCA, PRS

Growing up in Louisiana with addiction running rampant on both sides of my family. A life away from drugs and alcohol seemed impossible for someone like me. I remember what it was like sitting across from someone thinking there is no way they could ever understand what I was going through.

Sharing my experience offers a credibility and a certain type of trust with clients that only someone who has walked down this road can illustrate. To immerse myself further into the field of addiction, I am currently studying at Cincinnati State for Human and Social Services.  I hope I never forget where I came from, if I can do it, so can you!

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Thomas Hunter LSW

Hello my name is Thomas Hunter. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a licensed social worker.In my scope of practice I have worked in the areas of mental health and recovery for thirty years. The clients I have worked with in my career have ranged in age from seven to seventy.

I strive each day to serve my purpose of helping those in need and I believe I do so by utilizing all of my experiences to accomplish my goal of supporting those who desire to establish their sobriety and maintain it in their recovery. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn.

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Mary D.Porter,LICDC

 My name is Mary D. Porter. I received my Masters of Social Work in 2008 from The University of Cincinnati. I received My Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Licensure in 2001. I retired from The Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center on April 14, 2014. Currently, I am the Associate Clinical Director for The Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers in Cincinnati.. Due to the fourth wave of the Opioid Epidemic in 2019,  I decided to enter back into the workforce to assist the addicted population.

The overdoses were astounding and I wanted to help.  I consider myself  to be an advocate for the addicted population. My compassion, resilience, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, experience and  love I have for this forgotten population goes beyond words. I consider what I do for the addicted population as a calling versus a “career,” because I too was once an “addict and alcoholic.” Today I am 45.5 years alcohol and substance free.

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Ben Lemmon LCDC III

Hello, my name is Ben Lemmon, and I’m the Vice President and Clinical Director at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. I’ve been working in the addiction and mental health field since 2013 and decided to enter the field after overcoming my own challenges with addiction.

When I first meet a client, I always explain to them that the reason we are meeting is because they are not capable of obtaining or maintaining sobriety, and my goal is to create a person that can maintain sobriety. I believe a person’s personality is made up of their thoughts, feelings and actions and my job is to help clients identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that have them disconnected from recovery and provide them with the tools to live a healthy and happy life. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn