Prescription Depressant Medications

Street names: Barbs, Phennies, Reds

Revised May 2019

What are prescription depressants?

Depressants definition©Photo by iStock.com

Also known as: A-minus, Barbs, Candy, Downers, Phennies, Red Birds, Reds, Sleeping Pills, Tooies, Tranks, Yellows, Yellow Jackets, 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, it is considered misuse when they are taken not as prescribed, to get "high," or when you take some prescrived 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.

Depressants
Type Conditions They Treat
Barbiturates
  • mephobarbital (Mebaral®)
  • phenobarbital (Luminal®)
  • sodium pentobarbital (Nembutal®)
  • Seizure disorders
  • Anxiety and tension
Benzodiazepines
  • alprazolam (Xanax®)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin®)
  • diazepam (Valium®)
  • estazolam (ProSom®)
  • lorazepam (Ativan®)
  • Acute stress reactions
  • Panic attacks
  • Convulsions
  • Sleep disorders
Sleep Medications
  • eszopiclone (Lunesta®)
  • zolpidem (Ambien®)
  • zaleplon (Sonata®)
  • 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, 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?

Short-Term Effects

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

  • slurred speech
  • poor concentration
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • shallow breathing, which can lead to overdose and even death.
  • sleepiness
  • 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

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. 

Can you overdose or die if you use prescription depressants?

Yes, you can die if you misuse depressants. In 2017, more than 16,800 people died from an overdose of an antidepressant prescription drug. Most of these deaths (11,500) were from misuse of benzodiazepines, drugs designed to have calming effects, such as Valium® or Xanax®. Many of the deaths were in combination with an opioid drug.1 In fact, the risk for overdose and death increases when depressants are combined with other drugs or alcohol. The number of deaths involving benzodiazepines or antidepressants in combination with opioids has been increasing steadily since 2014 while deaths from these drugs not mixed with opioids has remained steady. Learn more about drug overdoses in youth.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999–2017 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2018. Available at http://wonder.cdc.gov.

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 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?

Most teens do not misuse prescription depressants, as you can see from the chart listing percentages below.

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 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:

If a friend is using drugs, you might have to step away from the friendship for a while. It is important to protect your own mental health and not put yourself in situations where drugs are being used.

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

Infographics

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.
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