What is Barbiturate Overdose?

Introduction

Barbiturate overdose is poisoning due to excessive doses of barbiturates.

Refer to Barbiturate Dependence.

Background

Symptoms typically include difficulty thinking, poor coordination, decreased level of consciousness, and a decreased effort to breathe (respiratory depression). Complications of overdose can include noncardiogenic pulmonary oedema. If death occurs this is typically due to a lack of breathing.

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

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

Mechanism of Action

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.

Treatment

Treatment involves supporting a person’s breathing and blood pressure. While there is no antidote, activated charcoal may be useful. Multiple doses of charcoal may be required. Haemodialysis may occasionally be considered. Urine alkalinisation has not been found to be useful.

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 committed suicide by barbiturate overdose include, Gillian Bennett, Charles Boyer, Ruan Lingyu, Dalida, Jeannine “The Singing Nun” Deckers, Felix Hausdorff, Abbie Hoffman, Phyllis Hyman, 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, Marilyn Monroe, 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 hospitalised with burns, the doctors treating her not being aware of her barbiturate addiction). Maurice Chevalier unsuccessfully attempted suicide in March 1971 by swallowing a large amount of barbiturates and slitting his wrists; however, 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 hypoglycaemia and myxoedema coma. In the right setting, hypothermia should be ruled out.

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