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What Is Phenobarbital? — Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects

Once a popular therapeutic medication, phenobarbital usage has seen a great decline in recent decades. Still, this drug has the potential not only for accidental misuse but also for recreational abuse. If you or someone close to you is embarking on a phenobarbital prescription, here’s everything you need to know.

What Is Phenobarbital?

Phenobarbital is classified as a barbiturate, which are sedative drugs that suppress the central nervous system by reducing the activity of neurons in your brain and spinal cord.

Available under various brand names such as Luminal and Nembutal, phenobarbital is most often prescribed to treat and control seizures, such as those caused by epilepsy. It may also be used as a pre-anesthetic medication.

In years past, barbiturates were also a go-to choice for anxiety disorder, but the high incidence of abuse has seen them fall out of favor for this purpose. Instead, phenobarbital and other barbiturates have been replaced by benzodiazepines like Valium or Xanax to treat stress and anxiety — though these drugs, also called “benzos,” are now heavily abused, as well.

Recommended Use of Phenobarbital

Phenobarbital is typically taken orally, either in tablet or liquid form. Doctors will usually prescribe it for use between one and three times a day, but be sure to adhere to the specific directions on your prescription label. It’s important to take phenobarbital precisely as instructed by your medical professional. Because this drug is potentially habit-forming, you should never take phenobarbital more often, in greater doses, or for a longer period of time than outlined by your prescription.

By the same token, you also should not suddenly stop taking phenobarbital without consulting your doctor, as abruptly quitting may cause withdrawal symptoms. When it is time to conclude your phenobarbital use, your doctor will most likely wean you off the prescription by lowering your dose gradually.

Side Effects of Phenobarbital

Even used appropriately, phenobarbital can sometimes cause side effects. These may include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Excitement or hyperactivity
  • Nausea or vomiting

When mild, these side effects are not necessarily a cause for concern. However, consult your doctor if they are severe or persistent.

There are also some possible side effects that occur more rarely but are more serious. Immediately contact your physician if you experience the following, as they may be a sign of an allergic reaction or other medical crisis:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swollen eyes, lips, or cheeks
  • Rash, blisters, or peeling skin
  • Fever
  • Confusion

Phenobarbital Withdrawal

If you stop taking phenobarbital abruptly, you may develop uncomfortable and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. These can include:

  • Anxiety or confusion
  • Seizures or muscle twitching
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Problems with vision
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Insomnia

It is safer to gradually decrease phenobarbital use over time. If you’re trying to cease medical or recreational use of this drug, consult your physician or a rehabilitation specialist to help create a step-by-step plan.

Phenobarbital Abuse

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has classified phenobarbital as a Schedule IV controlled substance. This indicates that when used consistently or for a long period of time, phenobarbital can cause users to develop physical dependence. As such, phenobarbital is highly prone to be abused.

In addition, phenobarbital is considered fast-acting, which means that its effects develop quickly after use — but may also fade more quickly than those of other sedatives. This short lifespan may drive dependent individuals to take phenobarbital more frequently than is safe, bingeing the drug to keep up its effects. In other cases, users may cope by dangerously combining the drug with other substances like alcohol.

Phenobarbital abuse isn’t always by prescribed patients, however. Often, young individuals will acquire the drug through theft or by buying it from someone with a legitimate prescription. Recreationally, phenobarbital may be taken to experience giddy psychoactive effects similar to the feeling of alcohol inebriation. The drug can cause lowered inhibitions, slurring, and problems with coordination.

Phenobarbital abuse is a serious matter, as the drug is very dangerous in high concentrations — and, in fact, is still used in multiple countries and the U.S. as a component in lethal injections, shutting down the automatic processes that control an individual’s breathing and heartbeat.

Signs of barbiturate abuse, including abuse of phenobarbital, can include:

  • Inappropriate use of the drug without a prescription or ignoring the prescribed schedule and dosage
  • Frequent cravings to use the drug
  • Continuing to use phenobarbital despite its negative impact on their interests, work life, or relationships
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using phenobarbital or using it in lower amounts
  • Frequently appears to be intoxicated without using alcohol
  • Alternating periods of normalcy and periods of irritability, low energy, and antisocial behavior

Furthermore, if someone taking phenobarbital therapeutically notices that some of their prescription is missing, this may suggest that someone close is stealing the drug for recreational use or resale.

If you notice these signs in a friend or loved one, encourage them to seek professional help for a proper medical diagnosis.

Risks of Long-Term Phenobarbital Use

Prolonged use of phenobarbital — even among those who have legal prescriptions — has been associated with cognitive damage. For instance, long-term users may experience issues with memory, problem-solving, and focus. They may also experience symptoms affecting their mental and emotional health, including anxiety, depression, delusions, or psychosis.

In terms of physical health, long-term users are also at increased risk of other health issues such as stroke, heart attack, or cancer. If someone you know is using phenobarbital recreationally or has developed a dependence from their prescription, it’s important to get them help sooner rather than later to avoid possible health complications down the line.

Get Answers with Countrywide Testing

Concerned that a loved one may be struggling with phenobarbital abuse? Countrywide Testing can help. Our tests provide confirmation so you can get them the support they need.

Countrywide Testing is an online retailer providing you with easy access to drug tests and pharmacogenetic testing. We offer an array of products for testing at home, individuals staying clean after rehab, workplace testing, healthcare emergencies, and law enforcement purposes. 

Our test kits are convenient, affordable, and ship to you quickly. Plus, our lab is accredited by SAMHSA, so you can rest assured your test results are handled in accordance with the highest industry standards.

Want more information on how Countrywide can support a journey toward full rehabilitation from phenobarbital abuse? Just contact our team today.