NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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Drug Facts

Prescription Depressant Medications

What Are Depressants?

A pile of prescription drugs.

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 safe and helpful. But 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.

Depressants
Type Conditions They Treat
Barbiturates
  • Mephobarbital (Mebaral)
  • Sodium pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • Seizure disorders
  • Anxiety and tension
Benzodiazepines
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Estazolam (ProSom)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)
  • Acute stress reactions
  • Panic attacks
  • Convulsions
  • Sleep disorders
Sleep Medications
  • Zolpidem (Ambien)
  • Zaleplon (Sonata)
  • Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  • Sleep disorders

Read more about prescription drugs and what happens to the brain and body when someone abuses them. And find out what others are doing to prevent teen prescription drug abuse.

How Are Depressants Abused?

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.
  • 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.

How Do Depressants Affect the Brain?

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.

What Are the Other Effects of Depressants?

As depressants slow down brain activity, they cause other effects throughout the body when they are abused:

  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Sleepiness
  • Disorientation
  • Lack of coordination

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, which can lead to death.

Can You Get Addicted to Depressants?

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.

Can You Die If You Abuse Depressants?

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

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999–2011 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2014. Available at http://wonder.cdc.gov.

How Many Teens Abuse Depressants?

NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study collects data on teen abuse of depressants, referring to the drugs as tranquilizers:

Swipe left or right to scroll.

Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Tranquilizers for 8th Graders, 10th Graders, and 12th Graders; 2014 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period 8th Graders 10th Graders 12th Graders
Tranquilizers Lifetime 2.90 5.80 7.40
Past Year 1.70 3.90 4.70
Past Month 0.80 1.60 2.10

For the most recent statistics on teen drug abuse, see results from NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study.

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, 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:

For more information on how to help a friend or loved one, visit our Have a Drug Problem, Need Help? page.