What are prescription depressants?
Depressants, sometimes referred to as central nervous system (CNS) depressants or tranquilizers, slow down (or “depress”) the normal activity that goes on in the brain and spinal cord. Doctors often prescribe them for people who are anxious or can’t sleep.
When prescription depressants are taken as prescribed by a doctor, they can be relatively safe and helpful. However, it is considered misuse when they are taken not as prescribed, to get “high,” or when you take some prescribed for someone else. This can lead to dependence and addiction are still potential risks. Addiction means you continue to seek out and take the drug despite negative consequences.
Depressants can be divided into three primary groups: barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medications.
|Type||Conditions They Treat|
- mephobarbital (Mebaral®)
- phenobarbital (Luminal®)
- sodium pentobarbital (Nembutal®)
- Seizure disorders
- Anxiety and tension
- alprazolam (Xanax®)
- clonazepam (Klonopin®)
- diazepam (Valium®)
- estazolam (ProSom®)
- lorazepam (Ativan®)
- Acute stress reactions
- Panic attacks
- Sleep disorders
- eszopiclone (Lunesta®)
- zolpidem (Ambien®)
- zaleplon (Sonata®)
How Prescription Depressants Are Misused
Depressants usually come in pill or capsule form. People misuse depressants by taking them in a way that is not intended, such as:
- Taking someone else’s prescription depressant medication, even if it is for a medical reason like sleep problems.
- Taking a depressant medication in a way other than prescribed—for instance, taking more than the prescribed dose or taking it more often, or crushing pills into powder or opening capsules to snort or inject the drug.
- Taking a depressant to get “high.”
- Taking a depressant with other drugs or to counteract the effects of other drugs, such as stimulants.
- Mixing them with other substances, like alcohol or prescription opioids.
Read more about prescription drugs and what happens to the brain and body when someone misuses them.
What happens to your brain when you use prescription depressants?
The brain is made up of nerve cells that send messages to each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. Most depressants affect the brain by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The increased GABA activity in turn slows down brain activity. This causes a relaxing effect that is helpful to people with anxiety or sleep problems. Too much GABA activity, though, can be harmful.
Learn more about how the brain works and what happens when a person misuses drugs.
What can happen to your body when you use prescription depressants?
As depressants slow down brain activity, they cause other effects:
- slurred speech
- poor concentration
- shallow breathing, which can lead to overdose and even death.
- lack of coordination
Depressants should not be combined with any medicine or substance that causes sleepiness, like prescription pain medicines, certain over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines, or alcohol. If combined, they can slow both the heart rate and breathing increasing the risk of overdose and death.
Long-term effects are not known. However, over time, misuse of depressants can also lead to dependence, another reason they should only be used as prescribed. Dependence means you will feel uncomfortable or ill when you try to stop taking the drug, and it can lead to addiction.
What should I do if someone I know needs help?
If you, or a friend, are in crisis and need to speak with someone now:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (they don’t just talk about suicide—they cover a lot of issues and will help put you in touch with someone close by)
If you want to help a friend, you can:
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