Prescription Depressant Medications
Also known as: barbs, reds, red birds, phennies, tooies, yellows, or yellow jackets, candy, downers, sleeping pills, or tranks, A-minus, or zombie pills
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. Taken as prescribed by a doctor, they can be relatively safe and helpful. However, dependence and addiction are still potential risks when taking prescription depressants. These risks increase when these drugs are abused. Taking someone else's prescription drugs or taking the drugs to get “high” can cause serious, and even dangerous, problems.
Depressants can be divided into three primary groups: barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medications.
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Depressants usually come in pill or capsule form. People abuse depressants by taking them in a way that is not intended, such as:
- Taking someone else’s prescription depressant medication.
- Taking a depressant medication in a way other than prescribed by their doctor.
- Taking a depressant for fun or to get high.
- Taking a depressant with other drugs or to counteract the effects of those drugs, such as stimulants.
Most depressants affect the brain by increasing the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical in the brain that sends messages between cells. 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 abuses drugs.
As depressants slow down brain activity, they cause other effects:
- Slurred speech
- Shallow breathing, which can lead to overdose and even death.
- Lack of coordination
These effects can lead to serious accidents or injuries. Abuse of depressants can also lead to physical dependence, another reason they should only be used as prescribed.
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.
Yes. Abuse of depressants can lead to physical dependence, which is when the body gets used to the drug and a person can’t stop taking it without feeling discomfort or even worse symptoms (withdrawal). It can also lead to addiction, which is when a person compulsively seeks and takes the drug, to the point of damaging their life.
Depressants work by slowing the brain's activity. During the first few days of taking a depressant, a person usually feels sleepy and uncoordinated. With continuing use, the body becomes used to these effects and they lessen. This is known as tolerance, which means a person has to take more of the drug to get the same initial effects.
When someone who is physically dependent on a depressant stops abruptly, the brain reacts strongly, even violently sometimes, because it is missing the chemicals it’s come to depend on through repeated drug use. In some cases, the brain activity races out of control to the point where it causes seizures. Just like with illegal drugs, quitting depressants is hard and can be dangerous. Someone who is either thinking about stopping use, or who has stopped and is suffering withdrawal, should get medical treatment.
Yes, you can die if you abuse depressants. Of the 22,810 deaths related to prescription drug overdose in 2011, more than 6,800 (30%) involved benzodiazepines (such as Valium and Xanax). Among young people, males are almost 3 times more likely to overdose from depressants than are females.1 The risk for overdose and death are increased when depressants are combined with alcohol or other drugs.
NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study collects data on teen abuse of depressants, referring to the drugs as tranquilizers:
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For the most recent statistics on teen drug abuse, see results from NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study.
If you or a friend are in crisis and need to speak with someone now, please call:
- 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 need information on treatment and where you can find it, you can call:
- Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator at 1-800-662-HELP or visit www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov.
For more information on how to help a friend or loved one, visit our Have a Drug Problem, Need Help? page.
- Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs Chart
- DrugFacts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications
- NIDA Notes Articles: Prescription Drugs
- PEERx Initiative for Teen Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention
- Research Report Series: Prescription Drug Abuse
Statistics and Trends
Monitoring the Future (University of Michigan):
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: