What Are Tranquilizers? How Safe Are They?

Get to Know the Good and Bad Side of Tranquilizers

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Tranquilizers are medications prescribed to help you feel calm and relaxed (that is, tranquil) by reducing your irritability and/or excitability. Another name for them is sedatives, and they are classified as depressants.

Two main types of tranquilizers can be prescribed legally in the U.S.: benzodiazepines and barbiturates.

Benzodiazepines. These tranquilizers are most often prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and panic attacks.

There are at least 15 benzodiazepines on the market in the U.S. Some that are commonly prescribed include lorazepam (Ativan), diazepam (Valium), clonazepam (Klonopin), and alprazolam (Xanax).

Almost all the tranquilizers in this group have the letters “azo” or “aze” in the middle of their generic (chemical, non-branded) names.

Barbiturates. These tranquilizers have been around a long time and were once very widely prescribed, particularly for people with insomnia and anxiety. That changed, however, with the arrival of the benzodiazepines, which are considered safer.

Barbiturates include phenobarbital (Nembutal, Luminal), secobarbital (Seconal, Tuinal), and mephobarbital (Mebaral). They are seldom prescribed today except in hospitals and veterinarians’ offices.

And, Mentioned Here as a Warning … A tranquilizer you may have heard about that is not legal to prescribe in the U.S. is flunitrazepam, better known as Rohypnol, a “date rape” drug.

Rohypnol pills are called roofies. This drug is smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico.

The Not-So-Tranquil Side of Tranquilizers

Despite their laid-back name as well as effects when used as recommended, these medications have a seriously darker side:

  • They depress your central nervous system (CNS), slowing your brain function.
  • They are highly addictive, and there’s no medication to treat tranquilizer addiction.
  • It’s relatively easy to develop tolerance to them (also called dependence), so that you need higher and higher doses to get the same effect. Used this way repeatedly, they can cause addiction, overdose, and even death.
  • It’s dangerous to stop taking these drugs “cold turkey,” which can bring on a seizure.
  • And it’s extremely dangerous to take them when you’re drinking alcohol – that can cause death, too.

Recognizing the Signs of Tranquilizer Abuse

Some signs of tranquilizer abuse include:

  • Headaches
  • Memory loss
  • Paranoia and suicidal thoughts
  • Aggression or agitation
  • Slurred speech and a lack of coordination, which may disappear as tolerance to the drug increases
  • Depression
  • Dilated pupils
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

Benzodiazepine Abuse

Benzodiazepines are often obtained without a prescription and used recreationally. Used this way, they produce effects similar to alcohol drunkenness.

So-called “street” names for benzodiazepines include "tranks", "downers", and "candy."

Barbiturate Abuse

Recreational, non-prescription uses of barbiturates have included "treating" undesirable effects of illegal drugs and lowering people’s inhibitions.

However, barbiturates can be extremely dangerous, and not only because they’re highly addictive:

  • It’s hard to be sure of having the correct dose – and even a small overdose can lead to coma or death.
  • Withdrawal from barbiturate addiction can be life threatening.

Street names for barbiturates include "barbs", "red birds", "yellows," and "phennies."


“Sedatives and tranquilizers: what are they prescribed for?” Mass.Gov/Commonwealth of Massachusetts (2016).  

“Commonly abused drugs charts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health (2016).   

“Barbiturate abuse.” EMedicineHealth.Com (2016).   

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