GHB is used as a general anesthetic in Europe. In the US, the FDA approved GHB for use in the treatment of narcolepsy (a sleep disorder) in 2002. This approval came with severe restrictions, including its use only for the treatment of narcolepsy and the requirement of a patient registry monitored by the FDA.
It has been used in this country as a date rape drug: it can be slipped into a victim's drink, causing dizziness, confusion, drowsiness and sometimes loss of consciousness. When GHB is combined with alcohol, it is especially dangerous because the combination of two depressants can lead to overdose. Before the use of GHB was restricted, it was marketed to bodybuilders as a product to release growth hormone and build muscles. There is no evidence that it produces this effect. GHB was also marketed as an "herbal" supplement to help with sleep and depression.
GHB acts on at least two sites in the brain: a GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) receptor and a specific GHB binding site. Because GHB is a metabolite of the inhibitory transmitter GABA, it is found naturally in the brain but at concentrations much lower than doses that are abused.
GHB is generally taken in a liquid form, though it is sometimes found in powder, tablet, or capsules. Since in its liquid form the strength of GHB varies, and people's reactions to it vary, it is very easy to take a dangerous dose of this drug. The effects of the drug begin 10 to 20 minutes after taking it and last up to 4 hours.
GHB can produce hallucinations and feelings of relaxation and euphoria. People who use GHB also report feeling increased energy, feeling affectionate and sociable, mild disinhibition and enhanced sexual experience.
Health risks include nausea, loss of coordination, difficulty concentrating, and loss of gag reflex. Because doses are difficult to quantify, overdose can occur quite easily, especially when combined with alcohol. Warning sings of GHB overdose can include:
- Severe headache
- Very slow breathing and heart rate
- Withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, tremors and sweating
- Memory loss
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of consciousness
Although a very small percentage of teenagers use GHB, GHB emergency room admissions nearly quadrupled nationwide between 1998 and 2000, when 4,969 cases were reported.
Because GHB leaves the body's system relatively quickly, it is not easily detected by medical tests. It is important to tell a medical provider that you have been using GHB so that you can get appropriate medical help.
GHB can easily be slipped into someone's drink undetected. If you start to feel symptoms that don't make sense with what you are drinking, get help immediately.
GHB may still be produced illegally and you can never be sure what's in the drug or how strong it is. Making GHB from a recipe is also extremely dangerous as, a number of people who did not formulate GHB correctly, have burned their mouths, throats, and esophagi with what was essentially an acid compound.
No long-term research has been done on GHB's impact on the brain yet, but because it's such a powerful sedative, it most likely affects the brain's memory and learning functions. Recent work has shown that GHB is highly addictive when used over extended periods of time (see below).
Some of the signs of problem use are:
- You use it more frequently.
- You need more and more to get the same effect.
- You become preoccupied with using it.
- You spend more money than you have on getting the drug.
- You miss class, fail to complete assignments, or miss other obligations.
- You make new friends who do it and neglect old friends who don't.
- You find it's hard to be happy or to relax without it.
- You have headaches or trouble sleeping without it.
If you find that you can't stop using GHB, remember, there's help available.
Repeated use of GHB may lead to withdrawal effects, including insomnia, anxiety and tremors. Experiencing withdrawal is one of the signs of addiction. Treatment options remain limited. Because of the severity of withdrawal symptoms from GHB, it's imperative to have professional help when detoxing from GHB. Withdrawal can include delirium, disorientation, and hallucinations that may last up to two weeks.
GHB use is legal only when it is prescribed to someone for the treatment of narcolepsy. Other types of possession, use, manufacture and sale carry heavy prison sentences and fines and disciplinary consequences at Brown. See the Brown University Policy on Drugs on the Student Rights and Responsibilities web site.
If you are concerned about a friend's drug or alcohol use, this page contains helpful information about different ways to help them.
If you or a friend are having trouble with drugs or alcohol, or just have questions, there is help available.
Project GHB, Inc.
This educational website provides information on the dangers of GHB, drugs that are similar to GHB and help for addiction.
Dance Safe is a harm-reduction web site centered on drugs found in nightclubs and raves. The site offers drug information, a risk assessment, ecstasy testing kits and e-news.
National Institute on Drug Abuse
NIDA drug pages have research reports, statistics and information on addiction.
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