Facts about Prescription Depressants

Prescription depressants have a legitimate medical purpose in the treatment of some conditions such as sleep disorders and anxiety. However, they are powerful substances that can also cause problems due to overuse or abuse, use in combination with other prescription drugs and/or alcohol, and use without a prescription for nonmedical purposes.

Use of prescription drugs is a particular problem among teens. This group cites them as the most available drug after marijuana. All they have to do is raid their parents’ medicine cabinets or get them on the street. The elderly are another group that constitutes a growing problem of prescription drug abuse. Often taking several medications due to a variety of ailments, the elderly may not recognize or remember they’re overmedicating or combining drugs in a dangerous manner.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), the level of overall prescription drug abuse in the U.S. is “very high,” and individuals can obtain these drugs through numerous sources. The NDIC’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 reports that the Xanax and Valium, two prescription depressants, are available in large quantities through numerous Internet sources that distribute them without a prescription. Gang distribution of prescription drugs has also increased since 2004.

What Prescription Depressants Are

Prescription depressants – sedatives and tranquilizers — act on the body’s central nervous system (CNS) and are known as central nervous system depressants. They work to slow the brain’s function. Two types of CNS depressants that physicians often prescribe for these conditions include barbiturates (Mebaral, Nembutal) and benzodiazepines (Valium, Librium, Xanax, Halcion, and ProSam, among others).

Common Street Names

Street names for prescription depressants include Amytal, barbs, blue devils, downers, yellow jackets, yellows, Nembutal, red devils, Seconal and Tuinals. Xanax is often called Z-bars.

How to Identify Prescription Depressants

Prescription depressants come in pill and capsule form. They are in various colors (red, yellow, blue, red and blue) and carry the manufacturer’s name. Many generics are available.

How Prescription Depressants Are Used

Doctors prescribe barbiturates such as mephobarbital (Mebaral) and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal) to help treat patients suffering from tension, anxiety and sleep disorders. Other CNS depressants prescribed to treat anxiety, acute stress reactions and panic attacks are benzodiazepines such as diazepam, chlordiazepoxide HCI, and alprazolam (Valium, Librium and Xanax, respectively). Triazolam and estazolam (Halcion and ProSam) are stronger benzodiazepines that doctors prescribe for short-term sleep disorder treatment. These drugs are usually not prescribed for patients’ long-term use.

Users (especially teens) take prescription depressants because of their sedating properties. These drugs calm them down and make them feel “mellow” and better able to deal with life’s stresses. The drugs are seldom taken alone, however, and are often combined with other street or prescription drugs taken for nonmedical purposes and/or alcohol. Even among patients who have been prescribed the drugs, instances of drug and/or alcohol combination are common.

CNS depressants are usually taken orally, although some can be injected. Abusers also crush and snort some of these drugs.

Effects of Prescription Depressants

How CNS depressants work on the body depends on the type of depressant. Each has its own unique properties and effects, but most act in some way on the brain’s neurotransmitter gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA). Communication between brain cells is handled by the neurotransmitters. CNS depressants cause a drowsy or calming effect on the body. Patients (and users) of the drugs initially feel sleepy and uncoordinated, but soon become accustomed to the drug’s effects.

Other effects of CNS depressants include:

• Abdominal cramps

• Amnesia

• Blurred vision

• Clumsiness

• Confusion

• Convulsions

• Dry mouth

• Fatigue

• Hallucinations

• Heart palpitations

• Headache

• Light-headedness

• Slurred speech

• Trembling

• Urination difficulty

Why Prescription Depressants Are Bad for You

Use of CNS depressants with other medications without a physician’s supervision can have profound effects. Generally, CNS depressants should never be used in combination with any other drug that causes depression. This list includes over-the-counter (OTC) medications for cold and allergy symptoms, prescription painkillers and alcohol. The result of combining CNS depressants with these other substances and alcohol can lead to severe complications – slowing respiration and the heart, and possibly death.

Withdrawal from CNS depressants can include vomiting, sweating, abdominal cramps, decreased mental clarity and concentration, diarrhea, extreme agitation, tremors and other symptoms.


The NIDA warns that despite their potential to help some persons, benzodiazepines and barbiturates have the potential for abuse. After long-term use, an individual develops a tolerance for the drugs, thus requiring them more often and/or in greater quantities, in order to achieve the desired results. Continued use leads to dependence.

Sudden cessation of the drugs can lead to withdrawal symptoms, and although withdrawal from benzodiazepines may cause problems, it is rarely life threatening, according to the NIDA. Since CNS depressants work to slow the brain, when a person stops taking them, it can lead to the brain’s “racing out of control,” the NIDA says, as the brain’s activity rebounds.

Medical treatment should be sought for anyone trying to stop taking CNS depressants, is abusing the drugs, or is suffering from drug withdrawal symptoms. There is currently no research on treatment for addiction to benzodiazepines and barbiturates. The NIDA cautions that persons seeking treatment for addition to these substances should undergo medically-supervised detoxification, as this requires a gradual weaning off the drug. Cognitive behavioral therapy may prove useful in helping the addicted individual modify behavior, thinking and expectations and to develop new coping skills to stay off the drugs.

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