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Depressants

What Are Depressants?

Depressants are drugs that calm nerves and relax muscles. Depressants do exactly what the name suggests — they depress a person's nervous system. Doctors use them to treat things like or anxiety.

But if depressant drugs (like sedatives, tranquilizers, or barbiturates) are abused, they can cause addiction, serious injury, or death.

Depressants are usually brightly colored pills, caplets, or capsules. Many are prescription drugs like Valium and Xanax. Other types of depressants, including alcohol and the illegal drugs GHB and Rohypnol, come in liquid or powder form and may be swallowed or snorted.

Short-Term Effects

When taken as prescribed by a doctor, depressants can help with lots of medical problems. The trouble happens when people use too much or take them without a prescription. Taking larger than prescribed doses can depress vital nervous system functions, like heart rate and breathing. Taking too much at once, or using depressants with alcohol or other drugs, can slow the heart and breathing enough to cause death.

Depressants affect one of the brain's called gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA). This slows brain activity and helps the user relax. Signs that someone is under the effects of depressants include:

  • drowsiness (even falling asleep at school or work)
  • confusion
  • headache
  • lack of self-control
  • dizziness
  • slurred speech and blurred vision
  • impaired judgment and mental functioning
  • nausea and vomiting
  • memory loss (depressants can cause users to have no memory of events that happened while they were under the influence)

Long-Term Effects

When people misuse depressants over a long time, they can develop a tolerance to them. That means they need more and more to feel the same effects. This can lead people to become dependent on depressants and make it hard to stop taking them. Someone who is dependent on depressants can have dangerous withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit.

Other long-term effects include:

  • impaired sexual function
  • insomnia and other sleep problems
  • breathing problems
  • convulsions (similar to seizures)
  • depression and other mental health issues

Other Possible Problems

Taking too much of a depressant at once can cause an overdose. The drug will slow down heart and breathing functions so much that a user can die.

Mixing or taking depressants with other substances can be deadly. This is especially true of alcohol: combining alcohol and depressants can easily cause an overdose.

When people use depressants over a long time, their brains get used to the decreased activity. When they take less of the drug or stop taking it, the brain's activity can rebound and race out of control. This might cause fatal seizures.

Most depressants are controlled substances, meaning they are available by prescription only. Some depressants, including Rohypnol and GHB, are illegal in the United States. Illegal possession or use of depressants without a prescription is a crime punishable by hefty fines and jail time.

How Can Someone Quit?

Quitting depressants can be very difficult. A person who tries to stop taking the drugs can have tremors, breathing problems, and seizures, go into a coma, or even die. Because the body's systems get used to the drugs, doctors have to be involved even if they're helping people stop taking the drugs for medical purposes.

If you are worried about your depressant use, talk with a counselor or doctor to get help. Quitting should be done only under the supervision of a doctor or licensed therapist to avoid serious complications.

Avoiding Depressants

When taken medically, depressants help a lot of people get through difficult times. Unfortunately, some people believe depressants are safe because doctors and nurses prescribe them. But depressants, when abused or taken with other drugs or alcohol, can kill. So watch out for them. If someone offers you a drug saying it's medicine to help you relax, don't take it. If you think you need help with anxiety or other mental health troubles, talk to your doctor and get a prescription that's safe for you to use.

Date reviewed: February 2014

Note: All information on TeensHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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