Barbiturates vs. Benzodiazepines – Is There a Difference & What are the Dangers?

Written by: Lynn Finnell, LMFT, LAADC | Reviewed by: Christian Small, MD

Woman finding it hard to choose between and tell the difference between barbiturates and benzodiazepines

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    As anyone who has taken prescribed medication knows, drugs of any kind can be dangerous if abused. Many prescription drugs have beneficial effects and have been proven to have medical and therapeutic benefits. However, they can also be extremely addictive. Potentially dangerous drugs known as barbiturates and benzodiazepines have become chronically abused.

    More than 12 percent of Americans use benzodiazepines.  Some people receive prescriptions from their doctors while others buy them illegally for recreational use. Both barbiturates and benzodiazepines are found to be addictive, and people struggling with substance abuse disorder use one or both of these substances.

    This guide provides detailed information on barbiturates and benzodiazepines, signs of abuse, and methods of treatment.

    Looking for treatment for benzodiazepines?

    Overview of Barbiturates

    Barbiturates, also known as downers, are a type of depressant drug that were once commonly used as sedatives and to treat seizures, anxiety, and insomnia. They are still sometimes prescribed to treat certain medical conditions. Their use has become much more limited due to their potential for addiction, abuse, and dangerous side effects.

    Common Barbiturates

    Some of the most common barbiturates and their uses include:

    • Phenobarbital: It is one of the most commonly prescribed barbiturates. It is used to treat seizures, anxiety, and insomnia, and can also help reduce the frequency of headaches in some people.
    • Amobarbital: It is another barbiturate, that is used to treat insomnia and is often prescribed as a sleep aid.
    • Pentobarbital: It's also known as Nembutal, and it is a shorter-acting barbiturate. Most doctors prescribe it to treat seizures and are sometimes used as a sedative.
    • Secobarbital: It is a longer-acting barbiturate that is sometimes used in combination with other drugs to treat anxiety or as a sleep aid.

    If a doctor prescribes one of these barbiturates, they can provide excellent results if caution is used. However, a person struggling with substance abuse disorder can begin abusing them.

    Uses of Barbiturates

    Barbiturates are typically used to treat various medical conditions, including seizures, anxiety, insomnia, and headaches. They are also sometimes prescribed as preoperative medications to help induce sleep before surgery.

    Signs of Barbiturate Addiction

    People who have become addicted to barbiturates will often take more of the drug than prescribed and use it more frequently than recommended. They may also experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, nervousness, and seizures when they try to stop taking the drug.

    Additionally, irritability and trouble sleeping can also be signs of addiction. A person struggling with barbiturate substance abuse disorder might visit multiple doctors, hospitals, and urgent care centers trying to get additional prescriptions. Lying about their use may also be a sign of abuse.

    Treatment for Barbiturate Abuse

    Treatment for barbiturate addiction typically begins with medical detoxification, followed by counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and group therapy. In some cases, medications may be needed to help reduce withdrawal symptoms and manage cravings.

    Withdrawal From Barbiturates

    Withdrawal from barbiturates can be very dangerous, and people who are trying to quit should seek professional help. Common withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, seizures, nausea, vomiting, and sweating. Depending on how much of the drug was used and how long it was used, the symptoms may last for several days or even weeks.

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    Overview of Benzodiazepines

    Benzodiazepines, also known as benzos, are a class of depressant drugs that are commonly prescribed to treat insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, and seizures. They are usually taken orally, although they are sometimes injected or smoked.

    Common Benzodiazepines

    Some of the most common types of benzos and their uses include:

    • Alprazolam: It's commonly prescribed under the brand name Xanax. It is used to treat anxiety and panic attacks.
    • Diazepam: It's also known as Valium. This medication is used to treat anxiety and insomnia and is sometimes prescribed to help treat seizures.
    • Lorazepam: It is sold under the brand name Ativan. It's most commonly used to treat anxiety, panic disorders, and insomnia.
    • Clonazepam: The brand name is Klonopin, and it is used to treat panic attacks, epilepsy, and anxiety.

    All of these medications require a prescription from a doctor unless purchased illegally.

    Uses of Benzodiazepines

    Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. They are also sometimes used to help people relax before surgery or to help treat alcohol withdrawal.

    Signs of Benzo Addiction

    People who are addicted to benzodiazepines often take more of the drug than their doctor prescribed and use it more frequently. Withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, and sweating, may be excessive when they try to stop taking the drug.

    Additionally, they may become more irritable and have trouble sleeping. Multiple visits to multiple doctors, urgent care centers, and hospitals to attempt to receive another prescription might be an indication of abuse and addiction.

    Treatment for Benzodiazepines Abuse

    • Medical detoxification
    • Medications to help reduce withdrawal symptoms and manage cravings
    • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
    • Group therapy
    • And more

    A person will work with their therapist to determine the best possible treatment program.

    Withdrawal From Benzodiazepines

    It can be dangerous to withdraw from benzodiazepine. It’s important to seek professional help to increase chances of success and for a person’s overall safety. Common withdrawal symptoms include:

    • Anxiety
    • Insomnia
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Sweating
    • Intense cravings

    The symptoms may last for several days or even weeks. The length of time a person experiences withdrawal will depend on how long their abuse lasted and how much they used.

    Dangers of Depressants

    Depressants, including barbiturates and benzodiazepines, have the potential to cause addiction and dependence. Prolonged use can lead to physical and psychological dependence, making it challenging to discontinue the drug without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. 

    The risk of addiction is generally higher for barbiturates compared to benzodiazepines, but benzodiazepines still pose a significant risk, particularly when misused or taken in higher doses than prescribed.

    Can A Person Be Addicted to Both?

    Yes, it is possible for someone to become addicted to both barbiturates and benzodiazepines. Since both drugs share similar mechanisms of action and affect the central nervous system, individuals who develop an addiction to one may be susceptible to developing an addiction to the other.

    Similarly, Individuals with a history of substance abuse or addiction may be more likely to experiment with multiple substances, including both barbiturates and benzodiazepines. In some cases, a person may take one drug to counteract the side effects of the other, creating a dangerous cycle of addiction.

    Partner With Villa Oasis San Diego to Overcome Addiction

    Barbiturates and benzodiazepines can be dangerous drugs if abused, and they have been known to lead to addiction and dangerous side effects. At Villa Oasis San Diego, we are here to help anyone who is struggling with drug abuse and addiction. Please contact us for help today.

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