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Barbiturates Vs. Benzodiazepines | Differences & Similarities

Published on March 30, 2021
Barbiturates Vs. Benzodiazepines | Differences & Similarities

Barbiturates and benzodiazepines are often compared to or mistaken for one another. While they do have similarities, they are also very different from one another and come with their own benefits, side effects, and risks.

What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines or benzos are central nervous system (CNS) depressants and sedative-hypnotics (make someone sleepy or drowsy) used to treat:

  • anxiety disorders
  • nervousness
  • panic disorders 
  • insomnia
  • sedation
  • muscle spasms 
  • seizures
  • sleeplessness
  • premenstrual syndrome
  • seizures
  • alcohol withdrawal

Benzos work by improving the effects of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter in the brain. Seizures, anxiety, and some of the other conditions listed above can be caused by overactivity of nerves in the brain. 

GABA reduces that activity, and these medications are effective for treating these issues. Benzodiazepines also improve the receptors of the neurotransmitter to give a mild “high” experience.

Benzos are available in short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting forms.

What Are Barbiturates?

Like benzos, barbiturates are central nervous system (CNS) depressants and sedative-hypnotics. Barbiturates are most commonly used to treat:

  • migraines
  • anxiety disorders
  • seizures
  • pressure in the skull
  • head trauma

Barbiturates also affect the GABA neurotransmitter that nerves use to communicate with each other and reduce nerve activity. With less nerve activity, barbiturates reduce heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, as well as work as a muscle relaxant. 

Barbiturates Vs. Benzodiazepines: Similarities

While benzodiazepines and barbiturates are not the same types of drugs, they do have a few similarities. They are both central nervous system depressants and prescription drugs that have similar effects on the body and cause drowsiness and sedation. 

Other similarities include:

  • mechanism of action (or how they work) on the GABA neurotransmitter 
  • treating anxiety and seizures.
  • side effects like lightheadedness, nausea, and vomiting
  • both are considered controlled substances by the FDA and the DEA
  • a comparable potential for abuse
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop use

Barbiturates Vs. Benzodiazepines: Differences

Despite the similarities, benzodiazepines and barbiturates are very different drugs. While they have a few side effects in common, most are quite different. 

Side Effects

Barbiturates can cause headaches, dizziness, and abdominal pain while benzodiazepines can cause memory impairment, confusion, constipation, fatigue, and dry mouth.

Prescription Uses

Additionally, while they are both used for anxiety and seizures, benzodiazepines are also used to treat panic disorders, insomnia, depression, and muscle tension. Approved use of barbiturates include being used as an anesthetic and a migraine medication.

Potency

Barbiturates are also much more potent than benzodiazepines which is one of the reasons why the latter eventually replaced the former. Barbiturates are much more dangerous when mixed with other substances than benzos are. 

Brand Names

Common benzodiazepines include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), temazepam (Restoril), and clonazepam (Klonopin).

Common barbiturates include secobarbital (Seconal), phenobarbital (Solfoton), butalbital, aspirin, and caffeine (Fiorinal); thiopental (Pentothal); and pentobarbital (Nembutal).

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms may occur if you suddenly stop taking benzodiazepines or barbiturates. 

Withdrawal symptoms for benzodiazepines may include difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, irritability, anxiety, panic attacks, hand tremors, vomiting, palpitations, headache, muscle pain and stiffness, and perceptual changes.

Withdrawal symptoms for barbiturates may include restlessness, agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, weakness, fast heart rate, tremors (shaking), hallucinations, or seizures.

Is One Better Than the Other?

Whether one is better for you than the other all depends on what your condition is and any other symptoms or concerns you have. Generally, benzodiazepines are less toxic so they are often prescribed more. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t less likely to be addictive.

 Both drugs have a potential for addiction which is why both must be monitored carefully.

Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment

It’s never too late to seek treatment for benzodiazepine or barbiturate addiction. Addiction treatment uses a combination of different methods, from detox support to individual/group therapy, to address substance abuse and any underlying issues. 

To learn which treatment programs are best for you, please contact our helpline today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - Barbiturates
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - Barbiturates Drug Fact Sheet
National Institute on Drug Abuse - Prescription CNS Depressants Drug Facts
National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - Barbiturate intoxication and overdose

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