Phenobarbital Abuse

Phenobarbital is a barbiturate drug most often prescribed to treat anxiety and seizure disorders. It can also relieve withdrawal symptoms from other barbiturates or alcohol, but this is a far less common usage, as barbiturates have a high potential for abuse.

Understanding Phenobarbital Treatment

Phenobarbital functions by depressing the central nervous system. The medication slows down brain activity, which suppresses seizures and panic attacks. By slowing brain activity, phenobarbital also relieves the symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal.

As long as it is taken under medical guidance as part of a substance abuse treatment program, phenobarbital can be a helpful way to start your recovery by easing your transition into sobriety. This can help you engage with the early days of treatment feeling stronger than you might have otherwise.

Understanding Phenobarbital Abuse

Although the drug is only legally available by prescription or when administered by medical professionals, some people obtain phenobarbital illegally for recreational use. Street names include downers, purple hearts and goof balls.

When used illicitly, barbiturates like phenobarbital are usually taken to induce sleep, create a mild feeling of euphoria, reduce anxiety, decrease inhibitions, and treat unwanted side effects from illicit drug use.

Taking barbiturates such as phenobarbital without a doctor’s guidance is extremely dangerous; tolerance and toxicity levels both develop quickly with sustained use, meaning you will soon need unsafe levels of the drug in order to induce the same level of intoxication.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s fact sheet on barbiturates, higher doses of the drug can cause:

  • memory problems
  • impaired judgment
  • loss of coordination
  • irritability
  • paranoia
  • suicidal ideation

Signs and Symptoms of Phenobarbital Abuse

Phenobarbital is a useful tool in the treatment of seizure and anxiety disorders. However, overuse and abuse of the medication can easily lead to addiction.

It is often difficult to tell if a loved one is struggling with a substance abuse problem, partly because addicts tend to be secretive, and partly because we don’t always want to face how bad things have gotten.

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms of having recently used a barbiturate like phenobarbital can include:

  • drowsiness
  • slurred speech
  • lack of coordination
  • euphoria or an exaggerated feeling of well-being
  • problems concentrating or thinking
  • memory problems
  • involuntary eye movements (nystagmus)
  • lack of inhibition
  • slowed breathing and reduced blood pressure
  • dizziness
  • depression

Addicts are also likely to isolate themselves from family and friends, and to avoid activities they once enjoyed. They may neglect their appearance, and mood swings are common.

Dangers of Phenobarbital Abuse

Tolerance for phenobarbital develops easily with sustained use, and taking large amounts will increase your risk of medical complications. Overdose risk is especially high with barbiturate drugs.

The Drug Enforcement Agency’s fact sheet on barbiturates explains that the effects of overdose include:

  • shallow respiration
  • clammy skin
  • dilated pupils
  • weak and rapid pulse
  • coma
  • possible death

Side Effects

The CVS website provides a list of side effects that phenobarbital can cause, even when you take it as directed. They range from mild to serious.

Side effects that usually do not require medical attention unless they continue or are bothersome include:




-irritability or nervousness


Side effects that require medical attention as soon as possible:

-allergic reactions like skin rash, itching or hives, swelling of the face, lips, or tongue

-breathing problems



-sore throat

-redness, blistering, peeling or loosening of the skin, including inside the mouth

-unusual bleeding or bruising

-feeling unusually weak or tired

-worsening of mood

-thoughts or actions of suicide or dying

-yellowing of the eyes or skin

Drinking alcohol with phenobarbital or taking it in combination with other drugs will increase adverse effects, including your risk of fatality. It is also a clear sign of a substance abuse problem.

Who Abuses Phenobarbital?

There is no one “type” of person who becomes addicted to phenobarbital. You can even become addicted accidentally while taking it as prescribed, although this is less common.

Addiction is not a sign of weakness. It is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that you will need professional help to overcome. Not only are there a multitude of psychological and emotional reasons you may find it difficult to stop using phenobarbital, barbiturate medications can lead to especially unpleasant and potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms that prevent you from quitting on your own.

You should always seek medical assistance when getting off a medication like phenobarbital. You must slowly taper off your dosage while being closely monitored in case of serious medical complications.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine lists the following withdrawal symptoms of the medication:

  • anxiety
  • muscle twitching
  • uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
  • weakness
  • dizziness
  • changes in vision
  • nausea, vomiting
  • seizures
  • confusion
  • difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • dizziness or fainting when getting up from a lying position

Phenobarbital Treatment and Addiction

Don’t be afraid to take phenobarbital to relieve withdrawal symptoms as you start treatment at a substance abuse rehab facility. The medication can be a wonderful tool in the early days of recovery, helping you to get sober more comfortably. An easier withdrawal process may help you enter into treatment with a more positive attitude.

Do, however, make sure you understand how dangerous it is to take phenobarbital without a prescription, and how important it is to get help if you are addicted to the drug.

Am I Addicted to Phenobarbital?

For your own benefit, and for those you love, it is important to be honest with yourself about your drug use. Symptoms or behaviors of drug addiction include, among others:

  • Having intense cravings for the drug
  • Feeling that you have to use the drug regularly, daily or even several times a day
  • Failing to meet obligations and work or school responsibilities
  • Withdrawing from social or recreational activities you once enjoyed
  • Needing to take more of the drug now to get the same effect as when you started
  • A preoccupation with maintaining a supply of the drug
  • Spending money you can’t afford to buy drugs
  • Doing things, such as stealing, that are out of character to obtain drugs
  • Engaging in risky behavior when you’re under the influence of the drug
  • Feeling as if almost all your time and energy is devoted to getting and using the drug
  • Failing in your attempts to stop using
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop

If you see yourself reflected in any of these statements, you may be addicted to phenobarbital and in need of professional substance abuse treatment.

Phenobarbital Addiction Treatment

There are a variety of affordable substance abuse treatment facilities that can guide you towards a drug-free life if that’s what you want.


Detoxification is the first step to any recovery plan, and one that requires assistance from trained medical professionals when the drug you are withdrawing from is phenobarbital.

A treatment facility that provides 24/7 monitoring throughout the detox process is ideal. A potentially fatal withdrawal syndrome is possible after regular use of barbiturates, and you may need emergency medical attention at some point.

Recovery Options

There is no one size fits all answer to substance abuse treatment. All addicts have their own strengths and weaknesses, their own passions and interests, and their own distinct goals for what they want to achieve in recovery.

Treatment should therefore be customized to suit you as an individual. Possible treatment options include:

  • Counseling– all treatment plans will include some form of talk therapy, be it individual, group, and/or family counseling sessions.
  • Quality health care– it is important to physically heal the damage drugs have done to your brain and body. To this end, good nutrition, exercise, and sleep are essential components of the recovery process.
  • 12 Step Meetings– support groups based on AA’s 12 step philosophies are tried and true tools for addiction recovery that you can turn to even after leaving a treatment program.
  • Nature and recreational therapy– getting out into nature and finding positive physical activities to use as outlets for stress relief are excellent ways to not only promote healing, but to support long-term sobriety.
  • Alternative therapies– less commonplace, but equally effective addiction treatments include yoga, acupressure, mindfulness training, art and music therapy, hypnosis, and more.