Barbiturate overdose

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Barbiturate overdose
Other namesBarbiturate poisoning, barbiturate toxicity
Molecular diagram of phenobarbital
Specialty Emergency medicine
Symptoms Decreased breathing, decreased level of consciousness [1]
Complications Noncardiogenic pulmonary edema [2]
Duration6–12 hours [2]
CausesAccidental, suicide [3]
Diagnostic method Blood or urine tests [4]
Treatmentmedical support, activated charcoal [5] [6]
FrequencyUncommon [7]

Barbiturate overdose is poisoning due to excessive doses of barbiturates. [8] Symptoms typically include difficulty thinking, poor coordination, decreased level of consciousness, and a decreased effort to breathe (respiratory depression). [1] Complications of overdose can include noncardiogenic pulmonary edema. [2] If death occurs this is typically due to a lack of breathing. [3]


Barbiturate overdose may occur by accident or purposefully in an attempt to cause death. [3] The toxic effects are additive to those of alcohol and benzodiazepines. [3] The lethal dose varies with a person's tolerance and how the drug is taken. [3] The effects of barbiturates occur via the GABA neurotransmitter. [2] Exposure may be verified by testing the urine or blood. [4]

Treatment involves supporting a person's breathing and blood pressure. [2] [5] While there is no antidote, activated charcoal may be useful. [5] [6] Multiple doses of charcoal may be required. [7] Hemodialysis may occasionally be considered. [6] Urine alkalinisation has not been found to be useful. [6] While once a common cause of overdose, barbiturates are now a rare cause. [7]


Barbiturates increase the time that the chloride pore of the GABAA receptor is opened, thereby increasing the efficacy of GABA. In contrast, benzodiazepines increase the frequency with which the chloride pore is opened, thereby increasing GABA's potency. [9]


Treatment involves supporting a person's breathing and blood pressure. [2] [5] While there is no antidote, activated charcoal may be useful. [5] [6] Multiple doses of charcoal may be required. [7] Hemodialysis may occasionally be considered. [6] Urine alkalinisation has not been found to be useful. [6]

If a person is drowsy but awake and can swallow and breathe without difficulty, the treatment can be as simple as monitoring the person closely. If the person is not breathing, it may involve mechanical ventilation until the drug has worn off. Psychiatric consult is generally recommended.

Notable cases

People who are known to have died by suicide from barbiturate overdose include, Gillian Bennett, [10] Charles Boyer, Ruan Lingyu, Victor Folke Nelson, [11] [12] Dalida, [13] [14] Jeannine "The Singing Nun" Deckers, Felix Hausdorff, Abbie Hoffman, Phyllis Hyman, Marilyn Monroe, C. P. Ramanujam, George Sanders, Jean Seberg, Lupe Vélez and the members of Heaven's Gate cult. Others who have died as a result of barbiturate overdose include Pier Angeli, Brian Epstein, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Inger Stevens, Dinah Washington, Ellen Wilkinson, and Alan Wilson; in some cases these have been speculated to be suicides as well. Those who died of a combination of barbiturates and other drugs include Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Dorothy Kilgallen, Malcolm Lowry, Edie Sedgwick and Kenneth Williams. Dorothy Dandridge died of either an overdose or an unrelated embolism. Ingeborg Bachmann may have died of the consequences of barbiturate withdrawal (she was hospitalized with burns, the doctors treating her not being aware of her barbiturate addiction). Maurice Chevalier attempted suicide in March 1971 by swallowing a large amount of barbiturates and slitting his wrists. While he lived, he suffered severe organ damage as a result and died from multiple organ failure nine months later.

Differential diagnosis

The differential diagnosis should include intoxication by other substances with sedative effects, such as benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants (carbamazepine), alcohols (ethanol, ethylene glycol, methanol), opioids, carbon monoxide, sleep aids, and gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid (GHB – a known date rape drug). Natural disease that can result in disorientation may be in the differential, including hypoglycemia and myxedema coma. In the right setting, hypothermia should be ruled out. [15]

Related Research Articles

Benzodiazepine Class of psychoactive drugs

Benzodiazepines, sometimes called "benzos" or "blues", are a class of psychoactive drugs whose core chemical structure is the fusion of a benzene ring and a diazepine ring. As depressants—drugs which lower brain activity—they are prescribed to treat conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. The first benzodiazepine, chlordiazepoxide (Librium), was discovered accidentally by Leo Sternbach in 1955 and was made available in 1960 by Hoffmann–La Roche, who soon followed with diazepam (Valium) in 1963. By 1977, benzodiazepines were the most prescribed medications globally; the introduction of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), among other factors, decreased rates of prescription, but they remain frequently used worldwide.

Flunitrazepam Benzodiazepine sedative

Flunitrazepam, also known as Rohypnol among other names, is a benzodiazepine used to treat severe insomnia and assist with anesthesia. As with other hypnotics, flunitrazepam has been advised to be prescribed only for short-term use or by those with chronic insomnia on an occasional basis.

Hypnotic Drug whose use induces sleep

Hypnotic, or soporific drugs, commonly known as sleeping pills, are a class of psychoactive drugs whose primary function is to induce sleep and to treat insomnia (sleeplessness).

Diazepam Benzodiazepine sedative

Diazepam, first marketed as Valium, is a medicine of the benzodiazepine family that acts as an anxiolytic. It is commonly used to treat a range of conditions, including anxiety, seizures, alcohol withdrawal syndrome, muscle spasms, insomnia, and restless legs syndrome. It may also be used to cause memory loss during certain medical procedures. It can be taken by mouth, inserted into the rectum, injected into muscle, injected into a vein or used as a nasal spray. When given into a vein, effects begin in one to five minutes and last up to an hour. By mouth, effects begin after 15 to 60 minutes.

Lorazepam Benzodiazepine medication

Lorazepam, sold under the brand name Ativan among others, is a benzodiazepine medication. It is used to treat anxiety disorders, trouble sleeping, severe agitation, active seizures including status epilepticus, alcohol withdrawal, and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. It is also used during surgery to interfere with memory formation and to sedate those who are being mechanically ventilated. It is also used, along with other treatments, for acute coronary syndrome due to cocaine use. It can be given by mouth or as an injection into a muscle or vein. When given by injection onset of effects is between one and thirty minutes and effects last for up to a day.

A sedative or tranquilliser is a substance that induces sedation by reducing irritability or excitement. They are CNS depressants and interact with brain activity causing its deceleration. Various kinds of sedatives can be distinguished, but the majority of them affect the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). In spite of the fact that each sedative acts in its own way, most produce relaxing effects by increasing GABA activity.

Hypoventilation occurs when ventilation is inadequate to perform needed respiratory gas exchange. By definition it causes an increased concentration of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia) and respiratory acidosis. Hypoventilation is not synonymous with respiratory arrest, in which breathing ceases entirely and death occurs within minutes due to hypoxia and leads rapidly into complete anoxia, although both are medical emergencies. Hypoventilation can be considered a precursor to hypoxia and its lethality is attributed to hypoxia with carbon dioxide toxicity.

Carisoprodol Muscle relaxant medication

Carisoprodol, sold under the brand name Soma among others, is a medication used for musculoskeletal pain. Use is only approved for up to three weeks. Effects generally begin within half an hour and last for up to six hours. It is taken orally.

Zopiclone Hypnotic medication

Zopiclone, sold under the brand name Imovane among others, is a nonbenzodiazepine used to treat difficulty sleeping. Zopiclone is molecularly distinct from benzodiazepine drugs and is classed as a cyclopyrrolone. However, zopiclone increases the normal transmission of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the central nervous system, via modulating GABAA receptors similarly to the way benzodiazepine drugs do.

Butalbital/acetaminophen, sold under the brand name Butapap among others, is a combination medication used to treat tension headaches and migraine headaches. It contains butalbital, a barbiturate and paracetamol (acetaminophen), an analgesic. Versions also containing caffeine are sold under the brand name Fioricet among others. It is taken by mouth. The combination is also sold with codeine.

Eszopiclone Hypnotic medication

Eszopiclone, sold under the brand-name Lunesta among others, is a medication used in the treatment of insomnia. Evidence supports slight to moderate benefit up to six months. It is taken orally.

Phenobarbital Medication of the barbiturate type

Phenobarbital, also known as phenobarbitone or phenobarb, or by the trade name Luminal, is a medication of the barbiturate type. It is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy in developing countries. In the developed world, it is commonly used to treat seizures in young children, while other medications are generally used in older children and adults. It may be used intravenously, injected into a muscle, or taken by mouth. The injectable form may be used to treat status epilepticus. Phenobarbital is occasionally used to treat trouble sleeping, anxiety, and drug withdrawal and to help with surgery. It usually begins working within five minutes when used intravenously and half an hour when administered by mouth. Its effects last for between four hours and two days.

Fomepizole Medication

Fomepizole, also known as 4-methylpyrazole, is a medication used to treat methanol and ethylene glycol poisoning. It may be used alone or together with hemodialysis. It is given by injection into a vein.

Butabarbital Chemical compound

Butabarbital is a prescription barbiturate sleep aid and anxiety medication. Butabarbital has a particularly fast onset of effects and short duration of action compared to other barbiturates, which makes it useful for certain applications such as treating severe insomnia, relieving general anxiety and relieving anxiety before surgical procedures; however it is also relatively dangerous particularly when combined with alcohol, and so is now rarely used, although it is still prescribed in some Eastern European and South American countries. Its intermediate duration of action gives butabarbital an abuse potential slightly lower than secobarbital. Butabarbital can be hydrolyzed to Valnoctamide.

Clomethiazole Sedative/Hypnotic medication for alcohol withdrawal

Clomethiazole is a sedative and hypnotic originally developed by Hoffmann-La Roche in the 1930s. The drug is used in treating and preventing symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal.

Chlordiazepoxide Benzodiazepine class sedative and hypnotic medication

Chlordiazepoxide, trade name Librium among others, is a sedative and hypnotic medication of the benzodiazepine class; it is used to treat anxiety, insomnia and symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol and other drugs.

Benzodiazepine overdose Medical condition

Benzodiazepine overdose describes the ingestion of one of the drugs in the benzodiazepine class in quantities greater than are recommended or generally practiced. The most common symptoms of overdose include central nervous system (CNS) depression, impaired balance, ataxia, and slurred speech. Severe symptoms include coma and respiratory depression. Supportive care is the mainstay of treatment of benzodiazepine overdose. There is an antidote, flumazenil, but its use is controversial.

Barbiturate Class of sedative medication derived from barbituric acid

A barbiturate is a drug that acts as a central nervous system depressant. Barbiturates are effective as anxiolytics, hypnotics, and anticonvulsants, but have physical and psychological addiction potential as well as overdose potential among other possible adverse effects. They have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepines ("Z-drugs") in routine medical practice, particularly in the treatment of anxiety and insomnia, because of the significantly lower risk of addiction and overdose and the lack of an antidote for barbiturate overdose. Despite this, barbiturates are still in use for various purposes: in general anesthesia, epilepsy, treatment of acute migraines or cluster headaches, acute tension headaches, euthanasia, capital punishment, and assisted suicide.

Salicylate poisoning Medical condition

Salicylate poisoning, also known as aspirin poisoning, is the acute or chronic poisoning with a salicylate such as aspirin. The classic symptoms are ringing in the ears, nausea, abdominal pain, and a fast breathing rate. Early on, these may be subtle, while larger doses may result in fever. Complications can include swelling of the brain or lungs, seizures, low blood sugar, or cardiac arrest.

Calcium channel blocker toxicity Medical condition

Calcium channel blocker toxicity is the taking of too much of the medications known as calcium channel blockers (CCBs), either by accident or on purpose. This often causes a slow heart rate and low blood pressure. This can progress to the heart stopping altogether. Some CCBs can also cause a fast heart rate as a result of the low blood pressure. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, sleepiness, and shortness of breath. Symptoms usually occur in the first six hours but with some forms of the medication may not start until 24 after hours.


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