Barbiturates Usage History and Side Effects

capsules spilling out of a bottle

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Barbiturates are a class of drugs derived from barbituric acid that act as depressants to the central nervous system. These drugs are used as sedatives or anesthetics and have the potential to become addictive. They're problematic because there is no good treatment to reverse a barbiturate overdose. 

Barbiturates have been used for physician-assisted suicide (in states where such procedures are legal).


German researcher Adolph von Baeyer was the first to synthesize barbituric acid. Barbital (Veronal) was the first barbiturate and was used for medical purposes in 1903. Barbiturates were frequently used to treat agitation, anxiety, and insomnia, but their use for treating such symptoms fell out of favor due to the risk of overdose and abuse.

Legend has it that the drugs' name comes from the date Baeyer and his colleagues made the discovery: They apparently went to celebrate their find at a tavern on the feast day of St. Barbara.

Benzodiazepines have largely replaced barbiturates in most medical uses.


The pharmacological actions of barbiturates include depressing nerve activity in the cardiac, smooth and skeletal muscles. These drugs also affect the CNS in several different ways and can produce effects ranging from mild sedation to a coma depending upon the dosage. Low doses of barbiturates can lower anxiety levels and relieve tension, while higher doses can decrease the heart rate and blood pressure.

Barbiturates have some severe drawbacks, including:

  • Potentially dangerous interactions with other drugs
  • Lack of safety and selectivity
  • A tendency to create dependence, tolerance, abuse, and withdrawal
  • Lack of effective treatment for overdoses

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


  • Amobarbital: Commonly referred to as "sodium amytal," this barbiturate gained a reputation as a truth serum since it proved effective when given to some subjects during interrogation. While it doesn't actually compel people to tell the truth, amobarbital can slow the central nervous system so that concentration becomes more difficult. The theory was that someone asked a question while under the influence of amobarbital would be less likely to be able to think of a false answer, which requires more focus than simply telling the truth.
  • Butalbital: This short-acting barbiturate is frequently used to treat migraine headaches, often in combination with acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine. It was marketed under the brand names Fiorinal and Fioricet. It's also been used as a sedative and an anesthetic.
  • Phenobarbital: This barbiturate was used to treat seizures in young children, due to its effectiveness as an anticonvulsant. It also has been used to treat anxiety, drug withdrawal (particularly from other barbiturates) and as a sleep aid.
  • Secobarbital: Marketed in the U.S. as Seconal beginning in 1934, this drug was a widely-prescribed sleep aid. It's the most-used drug in physician-assisted suicides in the U.S.
  • Pentobarbital: Used as an anesthetic in animals, this drug formerly used to treat seizures and convulsions has the dubious distinction of being one of the preferred drugs used for state executions in the U.S.
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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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