Prescription Depressant Medications

Street names: Barbs, Phennies, Reds

Revised March 2017

What is prescription depressant misuse?

Pile of blue prescription pills©Shutterstock/evkaz

Also known as: A-minus, Barbs, Candy, Downers, Phennies, Red Birds, Reds, Sleeping Pills, Tooies, Tranks, Yellows, Yellow Jackets, Yellows, and 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.

When prescription depressants are taken as prescribed by a doctor, they can be relatively safe and helpful. However, dependence and addiction are still potential risks. These risks increase when these drugs are misused. 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.

Type Conditions They Treat
  • Mephobarbital (Mebaral)
  • Sodium pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • Seizure disorders
  • Anxiety and tension
  • 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

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.
  • 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 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?

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 misuses drugs.

What happens to your body when you use prescription depressants?

As depressants slow down brain activity, they cause other effects:

  • slurred speech
  • shallow breathing, which can lead to overdose and even death.
  • sleepiness
  • disorientation
  • lack of coordination

These effects can lead to serious accidents or injuries. Misuse of depressants can also lead to physical 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. 

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.

Can you overdose or die if you use prescription depressants?

Yes, you can die if you misuse depressants. The risk for overdose and death are increased when depressants are combined with alcohol or other drugs.

More than 8,700 people died from an overdose of a benzodiazepine, such as Valium or Xanax, in 2015.1 Deaths from an overdose of prescription drugs in general have been on the rise since the early 1990s. Learn more about drug overdoses in youth.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999–2015 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2016. Available at

Are prescription depressants addictive?

They can be. 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 become less noticeable. This is known as tolerance, which means a person has to take more of the drug to get the same initial effects.

People can become physically dependent while taking prescription depressants, and to avoid uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal, they can work with their doctor to stop taking the drugs on a slow timetable. If you have been using depressants regularly and try to suddenly stop, your brain activity might race out of control to the point where it causes seizures. It is important to note that misusing depressants can lead to both physical dependence and addiction, which is when a person continues to use a drug despite negative consequences. 

How many teens use prescription depressants?

Below is a chart showing the percentage of teens who misuse prescription depressants. 

Swipe left or right to scroll.

Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Tranquilizers for 8th Graders, 10th Graders, and 12th Graders; 2018 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period 8th Graders 10th Graders 12th Graders
Tranquilizers Lifetime 3.50 6.00 6.60
Past Year 2.00 3.90 3.90
Past Month 0.90 1.30 1.30

For the most recent statistics on teen drug use, 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: 

  • 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 drug treatment and where you can find it, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can help.

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

Where can I get more information?

Drug Facts

NIDA Resources:

Other Resources:

Statistics and Trends

NIDA Resources:   

Other Resources:   


See text description below

Monitoring the Future 2018 Survey Results

Published: December 17, 2018
This infographic of the NIH’s 2018 Monitoring the Future survey highlights drug use trends among the Nation’s youth for vaping, marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription/OTC drugs.
See text description below

Monitoring the Future 2017 Survey Results

Published: December 12, 2017
This infographic of the NIH’s 2017 Monitoring the Future survey highlights drug use trends among the Nation’s youth for marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, e-cigarettes (e-vaporizers), and prescription opioids.
See text description below

Monitoring the Future 2016 Survey Results

Published: December 13, 2016
This infographic of the NIH’s 2016 Monitoring the Future survey highlights drug use trends among the Nation’s youth for marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and prescription opioids.
Infographic - see text below for description

Abuse of Prescription (Rx) Drugs Affects Young Adults Most

Published: February 08, 2016
More young adults use prescription drugs nonmedically than any other age group.
See text description below

Substance Use in Women and Men

Published: January 08, 2016
This infographic shows differences in substance use trends between women and men for marijuana use disorder, abuse of prescription pain medicines, treatment admissions for sleeping aid misuse, and nicotine cessation.
See text description below

Monitoring the Future 2015 Survey Results

Published: December 16, 2015
NIH’s 2015 Monitoring the Future survey shows long term decline in illicit drug use, prescription opioid abuse, cigarette and alcohol use among the nation’s youth.
Marijuana infographic - see text

Monitoring the Future 2013 Survey Results: College and Adults

Published: April 30, 2015
In 2013, 36 percent of college students said they used marijuana in the past year, compared to 30 percent in 2006
Infographic - see text below for description

Teens Mix Prescription Opioids with Other Substances

Published: April 08, 2013
Teens who abuse Rx opioids often combine them with marijuana or alcohol.
See text description below.

Prescription Drug Abuse: Young People at Risk

Published: June 07, 2012
The RX Risk: Roughly 1 in 9 youth abused prescription drugs in the past year.
Content on this site is available for your use and may be reproduced in its entirety without permission from NIDA. Citation of the source is appreciated, using the following language: Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.