Depressants slow breathing, soothe anxiety or ease one into sleep.  They are used to induce the sleep-like state of surgery or medically necessary coma, or (in smaller doses) to combat insomnia.  But since they have the power to affect the brain and the central functions of the nervous system, they can also lead to addiction or even death.

Here’s what you need to know about depressants.

Dangerous Depressants

Depressants come in come in four main categories:

  • Barbiturates – Used for sedation, anesthesia, to treat seizures, or even for physician assisted suicide, barbiturates are drugs derived from barbituric acid.  Common barbiturates include pentobarbital (Nembutal), pentobarbital (brand name Luminal) and Secobarbital (Seconal).
  • Benzodiazepines – Similar to barbiturate uses, benzodiazepines are also used as sleep aids or anti-anxiety medications.  Common benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium) clonazepam (Klonopin), and lorazepam (Ativan).
  • Opioids – Classified as narcotic pain medications and derived from opium or opium-like chemicals, opioids also act as depressants.  Over 250 million prescriptions are written for opioids each year, including oxycodone (OxyContin), codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone with acetaminophen (Vicodin) and morphine.
  • Alcohol – Alcohol is also a depressant, and like other depressants can be addictive and, if taken to extremes, begins to depress the nervous system to the point of death.

While marijuana is classified as a psychedelic, it also can have depressant effects on the body, so is sometimes grouped as the fifth category of depressant.

While depressants affect the brain and body in different ways, they also slow the functions of the nervous system, from whence comes the name “depressant.”  (They are not called depressants because of causing “depression,” though some users may experience emotional consequences of use, including depression).

With the exception of alcohol (and in some states, marijuana), drugs that are depressants are only available by prescription.  However, they are sold on the street in many forms (with no regulation or consistency).

Serious Side Effects

Prescription depressants, taken exactly as ordered by a medical professional, may still carry side effects and consequences, including addiction.  To abuse depressants, even too much alcohol, can carry additional risks.  Common side effects of depressants include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Lack of judgement or self-control
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech and/or blurred vision
  • Impaired mental function
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Memory loss or blackouts
  • Hallucinations
  • Coma
  • Psychosis

All depressants also carry risk of increased tolerance, which means having to take or consume more of something to have the same effect.  While tolerance does not necessarily cause overdose or lead to abuse, increased tolerance can be a factor in addiction and accidental overdose.

Depressants can be particularly dangerous when combined, which is why those individuals taking a prescription depressant are instructed to avoid all alcohol while under the influence of a depressant.  People who mix alcohol in any quantity with depressants, or multiple kinds of drugs (such as taking stimulants and depressants at the same time), are more likely to experience serious consequences or death.

Long-term use of depressants increases the risk of dependency.  Other long-term side effects include:

  • Insomnia or other sleep problems
  • Breathing problems (which can be very dangerous)
  • Impaired sexual function
  • Convulsions (seizure-like shaking)
  • Mental health issues such as depression, hallucination or psychosis.

Most depressants are not intended for long-term use, since the possibility of serious side effects increase.

Some users mistakenly believe that depressants can be used off-label, without a prescription, or on an “as-needed” basis.  Particularly for pain medications (like Vicodin) or anti-anxiety medications (such as Valium or Xanax).  Common misconception-based questions include, “Is Xanax a depressant?” “Don’t depressants help your mood?”  “How can you get addicted to a depressant?” and “If it’s called a depressant, it doesn’t cause euphoria, right?”

In fact, depressants can cause euphoria, and are among the most potentially addictive and dangerous drugs available on the street or by prescription. 

A report out of Harvard Medical School observes, “There is a relatively small difference between the desired dose and an overdose. A small miscalculation, which is easy to make, can lead to coma, respiratory distress (breathing slows or stops) and death.”  When used for such procedures as surgery (anaesthesia), the doctors or nurse anesthetists administering the drugs have years worth of training and obtain complete medical histories before administering enough of these sorts of medications to induce the sedation or sleep-like state desired for surgery, and avoid coma or death.  The margins can be quite narrow, which is part of why these drugs are so closely monitored.

Wicked Withdrawal

While detox from any drug upon which someone has become dependent can feel awful and like a sort of death, depressants are in their own category altogether — they can, in fact, cause death during withdrawal.

Indeed, even alcohol withdrawal can be deadly. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS, as it’s called), can begin within a few hours of the last drink, depending on the health, extent of use, and time period for which the person has consumed alcohol.  AWS causes:

  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Shaking

Within 12 to 24 hours, additional symptoms may begin, including:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium
  • Delusion
  • Confusion
  • High blood pressure
  • Racing heart
  • Fever
  • Heavy sweating

Symptoms can last for days, or as long as weeks, depending on the individual and the extent of alcohol abuse. 

Supervised withdrawal for alcohol and other depressants is necessary, so that symptoms that affect breathing, seizures, pulse and blood pressure can be monitored for personal safety.  Also, mental effects of withdrawal (such as hallucination) can lead to serious consequences, and so are best monitored by a specialist for the safety of the individual experiencing withdrawal.

Abuse Awareness

If you or someone you love are abusing depressants, there are some telltale signs you can look for, such as:

  • Lying to cover up use or otherwise hiding drug or alcohol use
  • Seeking out multiple practitioners to get a prescription filled (doctor shopping)
  • Buying illegal depressants
  • Self-medicating
  • Needing more of a substance to create the same effect (increased tolerance)
  • Using medications other than as prescribed (including taking extra of a prescription)
  • Stealing to obtain medication, or stealing another’s medication
  • Changes in behavior, including mood, activity level or defensiveness
  • Physical changes in appearance including weight loss or weight gain, dilated pupils, sweating or shaking
  • Distrust or paranoia
  • Planning life around when drugs or alcohol will be present

If someone you care about is experiencing these or other alarming changes, it is best to tackle the situation head-on with a conversation to find out what is going on.  It is better to know than to guess, if a loved one has a dependency upon depressants or other drugs.

Highway to Help

Fortunately, if you or a loved one have become addicted to depressants, it is possible to safely detox and fully disentangle oneself from the ropes of the noose of addiction.  Long-term recovery rates are comparable to recovery rates from other chronic conditions, such as asthma or hypertension.

Due to the dangerous nature of detoxification and withdrawal from depressants, extended inpatient treatment stands the best chance of a safe and effective recovery program. 

We can help you find a program with caring and professional staff, familiar with the safety concerns and other needs of depressant withdrawal. Locate a program which will fit your needs and also secure your success by speaking confidentially with a representative today!