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What is a Sedative? - Definition & Effects

Instructor: Laura Gray

Laura has taught at the secondary and tertiary levels for 20+ years and has a Ph.D. in Instructional Design for Online Learning.

This lesson defines the word 'sedative' and discusses the two main classes of prescription sedatives: benzodiazepines and barbiturates. The addictive properties of sedatives are explored, and withdrawal symptoms are discussed as well.

Sedatives Defined

A sedative is a drug that slows down or depresses the central nervous system and therefore slows down both the physical and mental processes in the body. There are many different types of sedatives, from prescription medications to alcohol to illegal 'street' drugs. In this lesson, we will focus on sedatives in the form of prescription medications, or those that are prescribed by a doctor. When used properly, sedatives can relieve anxiety, help people sleep better, and even help them to get through a difficult situation such as a death in the family; on the other hand, when over-prescribed or when taken too frequently, they can easily cause addiction and, in some cases, even death.

Types of Sedatives

There are two main classes of prescription sedatives. The most commonly prescribed type are the benzodiazepines, which include many drugs that you may have heard of. Common benzodiazepines, or 'benzos,' as they are often called, include medications such as Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, Valium, and Centrax. These drugs are commonly prescribed to help relieve anxiety in people who have anxiety disorders or another mental illness where anxiety is a symptom, or for people who are dealing with anxiety as the result of a traumatic issue in their lives.

Benzodiazepines are NOT meant to be taken long-term, as they are very addictive. Not surprisingly, some physicians have over-prescribed sedatives such as Xanax and, as a result, many of their patients have developed addictions to them. As with most types of drug addictions, once patients begin taking the drug (for argument's sake, let's say it's Xanax), it takes more and more Xanax to produce the same calming effect on the body. Eventually, the patient needs to take several Xanax a day in order to accomplish what one Xanax a day did in the beginning. As you can see, sedative use can be dangerous and should always be monitored by a doctor. In fact, some doctors have devoted their entire medical practices to helping patients get off of these medications.

The second class of prescription sedatives, which is actually older than the benzodiazepines, is the barbiturates. Barbiturate use really exploded in the 1960's, and some common trade names for barbiturates include Halcion, Nebutal, Seconal, and Butisol. Back when barbiturate use was coming into vogue, it was common for people to take these sedatives with alcohol, which as we mentioned earlier, is also a sedative. The combination could be deadly. When too many sedatives are taken, not only does the brain begin to shut down, but so do the heart and lungs.

A famous case in the 1970's concerned Karen Ann Quinlan, who became unconscious one evening after combining prescription sedatives with alcohol. As a result, she lapsed into a vegetative state and was kept on a ventilator for months. Her case was pivotal in the 'Right to Die' controversy; eventually, her parents were given permission by the State of New Jersey to have her taken off of life support. Although there are more details to this case, and Karen did not die when taken off of the ventilator, it demonstrates the negative impacts that can result from taking multiple types of sedatives simultaneously.

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