Sedatives are a broad class of prescription medications that slow your brain’s activity. Common types include benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Sedatives have several uses, ranging from treating anxiety and insomnia to anesthesia purposes. These medications have addiction potential, so they must be taken with caution.
A sedative is any prescription medication that slows the activity of (depresses) your central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord). Sedatives have a wide range of uses. Their potency (strength) and how long they last (duration) vary considerably.
Examples of the effects of sedatives include:
The medical world often associates sedatives with hypnotic drugs. Sometimes, they group them together to form one class: sedative-hypnotics.
Several drugs have sedative side effects (like antihistamines and neuroleptic medications), but the effect is mild enough that providers generally don’t consider them part of the sedative drug class.
Sedatives can have dangerous effects, especially if you misuse them. They have addiction potential and can be habit-forming. Because of this, healthcare providers prescribe sedatives cautiously. It’s important to take your sedative medication exactly as prescribed. Misuse of prescription sedatives can result in substance use disorder and overdose.
Sedation is a state of calmness, relaxation or sleepiness as a result of certain sedative medications. It’s also known as conscious sedation, twilight sedation or monitored anesthesia care.
In a medical setting, sedation most commonly goes hand in hand with procedures or surgeries. An example of this is sedation dentistry. Healthcare providers use sedation to help relieve anxiety during procedures or to help you cope with very stressful events.
Sedation always involves sedative drugs, but not all sedative drugs are used for full medical sedation. Some people take prescription sedatives for certain medical conditions, like insomnia or anxiety.
There are three levels of sedation:
What’s the difference between sedation and anesthesia?
Sedation is a decrease in awareness and a decrease in response to external stimulation. By itself, it results in calmness and relaxation. General anesthesia is a reversible and controlled loss of consciousness. General anesthesia involves sedation, the inability to feel pain (analgesia), temporary amnesia and temporary muscle paralysis.
Healthcare providers use sedation for minor surgeries or shorter, less complex procedures. General anesthesia is necessary for major surgeries, like open heart surgery, or for children who may not be able to remain still during minor procedures.
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Healthcare providers prescribe sedatives for several different conditions, some of which include:
Providers also use specific sedatives to help achieve sedation for certain procedures and minor surgeries. They also use them as part of general anesthesia.
The main groups of sedatives include:
Benzodiazepines are depressant drugs that slow down the messages that travel between your brain and your body. Healthcare providers mainly prescribe them for anxiety disorders, insomnia and seizures.
Examples of benzodiazepines include:
Barbiturates are medications that cause you to relax or feel drowsy. They can also stop or prevent seizures. The most common uses are for anesthesia purposes and treating seizures and insomnia.
Examples of barbiturates include:
These are medications that mimic hypnotic effects and work similarly to benzodiazepines, but they aren’t the same. These drugs are most effective in treating insomnia and related sleep disorders. They include:
Providers sometimes call these “Z-drugs.”
Other sedative medications that don’t fit into the other categories include:
Opioids also have mild sedative effects. Providers may use them alongside benzodiazepines for added sedation.
Benzodiazepines are the most common group of prescribed sedatives. The most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines are diazepam (Valium®) and alprazolam (Xanax®).
Sedatives work by disrupting certain nerve communications in your central nervous system. This slows down your brain’s activity.
More specifically, sedatives boost the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows down your brain. Increased GABA activity results in a decrease in brain activity.
Each sedative has different levels of potency. Some sedatives only slow down your brain’s activity a little bit, while others can decrease your brain activity enough to put you in a controlled state of unconsciousness.
Before you start taking a sedative, you should discuss the following topics with your healthcare provider:
Short-term side effects of sedatives include:
Risks and complications of sedatives include:
Long-term sedative use can lead to the following complications:
The main reason sedatives have a high addiction potential is that some of them can create a sense of euphoria (intense happiness), which many people find pleasurable.
People who use sedatives regularly can soon develop tolerance to these effects. They may then use more and more of the drug in an attempt to get the original intensity of symptom relief and euphoria. Chronic use or misuse of prescription sedatives can lead to mental (psychological) and physical dependence.
People are psychologically dependent when a drug is so central to their thoughts, emotions and activities that the need to continue its use becomes a craving or compulsion despite negative consequences.
With physical dependence, your body has adapted to the presence of the drug, and withdrawal symptoms happen if you suddenly stop taking the drug or you take a reduced dosage.
People who are physically dependent on sedatives experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the drug. These symptoms are often unpleasant, so they may be more likely to take more of the drug to stop the withdrawal symptoms.
Sedative use disorder is a common substance use disorder in the United States. Experts estimate that 5 million or more people in the U.S. misuse sedatives.
Sedative use disorder (SUD) can significantly impact your health, relationships and overall quality of life. It can also be life-threatening. It’s crucial to seek help as soon as you develop signs of SUD.
Sedative use disorder prevention
Ways to prevent sedative use disorder include:
It’s possible to develop toxic levels of a benzodiazepine if you take inappropriate amounts (such as more than the prescribed amount). In addition, if you take a benzodiazepine with another substance, such as a different sedative, opioid or alcohol, it can result in overdose and possibly death.
Symptoms of sedative overdose include:
Call 911 or get to the nearest emergency room if you or someone you know are experiencing these symptoms. Sedative overdose can be fatal if it’s not treated in time.
If you take your prescription sedative medication exactly as instructed by your healthcare provider, you shouldn’t experience withdrawal symptoms once you’ve finished your course of medication.
If you misuse sedatives and stop or cut back on these drugs after heavy use for a few weeks or more, you’ll likely have withdrawal symptoms, including:
Withdrawal can be a life-threatening emergency that may require hospitalization. Keep your provider informed of any symptoms of sedative withdrawal you may be experiencing.
Sedatives slow down your nerve signals and reflexes, so they can affect your ability to drive or do certain tasks safely. Your healthcare provider will tell you whether or not it’s safe to drive if you take a sedative medication.
Sedatives can also negatively affect fetal development. Talk to your provider if you’re pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant and take a sedative.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Ask your healthcare provider how often you should see them while you’re taking a prescribed sedative.
Talk to your provider if:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Sedatives have several uses, from treating anxiety and insomnia to anesthesia purposes. While these medications can treat many conditions, they’re not without risks. If your healthcare provider prescribes a sedative, don’t hesitate to ask for guidance, and be sure to take the medications exactly as prescribed. That way, you can benefit from these medications and reduce the risk of problems along the way.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/21/2023.
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