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Other Names: Barbs, Reds, Red Birds, Phennies, Tooies, Yellows, Yellow Jackets, Candy, Downers, Sleeping Pills, Tranks, A-Minus, Zombie Pills

Prescription drugs are often strong medications, which is why they require a prescription from a medical professional in the first place. When they are misused, they can be just as dangerous as drugs that are made illegally. Even when they are not misused, every medication has some risk for harmful effects, sometimes serious ones. Doctors consider the potential benefits and risks to each patient before prescribing medications and take into account a lot of different factors, described below. People who abuse drugs might not understand how these factors interact and put them at risk.

  • Personal information. Doctors take into account a person's weight, how long they've been prescribed the medication, and what other medications they are taking. Someone misusing prescription drugs may overload their system or put themselves at risk for dangerous drug interactions that can cause seizures, coma, or even death.
  • Form and dose. Doctors know how long it takes for a pill or capsule to dissolve in the stomach, release drugs to the blood, and reach the brain. When misused, prescription drugs may be taken in larger amounts or in ways that change the way the drug works in the body and brain, putting the person at greater risk for an overdose.
    For example, when people misuse OxyContin, a dose that normally works over the course of 12 hours hits the central nervous system all at once. This effect increases the risk for overdose.
  • Side effects. Prescription drugs are designed to treat a specific illness or condition, but they often affect the body in other ways, some of which can be dangerous. These are called side effects. For example, OxyContin stops pain, but it also causes constipation and sleepiness. Stimulants may increase a person’s ability to pay attention, but they also raise blood pressure and heart rate, making the heart work harder. These side effects can be worse when prescription drugs are not taken as prescribed or are misused in combination with other substances—including alcohol, other prescription drugs, and even over-the-counter drugs, such as cold medicines. For instance, some people mix alcohol and depressants, both of which can slow breathing. This combination could stop breathing altogether.

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.

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.



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


  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Estazolam (ProSom)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)
Conditions They Treat
  • Acute stress reactions
  • Panic attacks
  • Convulsions
  • Sleep disorders


Sleep Medications
  • Zolpidem (Ambien)
  • Zaleplon (Sonata)
  • Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
Conditions They Treat
  • Sleep disorders

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.

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.

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.

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