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Known today as an infamous date rape drug, GHB, or Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (C4H8O3), can produce effects ranging from euphoria (at low doses) to blackouts and amnesia. The chemical compound initially became popular as a surgery anesthetic in the 1960s, then gained notoriety as a party drug and fat burner in the 1980s. The body produces small amounts of GHB naturally in the brain. Some meats, beer, and wine also contain GHB; the average liter of wine holds between 4 mg and 21 mg of GHB. Conversely, illicit GHB confiscated from clubs and street sales commonly holds between 500 mg and 3,000 mg of GHB.
While the FDA approved Xyrem® (a medication with GHB used to treat narcolepsy) in 2002, it is strictly regulated as a Schedule III substance and not available in normal retail pharmacies. Illicit GHB, on the other hand, is created by street drug manufacturers and frequently sold on the internet as a Hallucinogen. It can be found as a colorless, odorless liquid or as a white powder that may have a soapy or salty taste.
Most people have heard of GHB because of its popularity in the club and electronic music scenes. Some report using the drug for its alcohol-like effects, which occur without the associated loss of body control, slurred speech, or hangover. Gym-goers have also reportedly used the drug to burn fat and build muscles. However, sexual predators have also used GHB as a date rape drug by pouring the nearly undetectable substance into an unsuspecting victim’s drink. The amount used by these criminals is usually enough to make the victim lose consciousness, leave them unable to defend themselves, and cause them to forget the details of what happened the next day.
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Though many people describe the feelings caused by taking low doses of GHB as euphoric and energetic, even small doses can cause loss of consciousness, hallucinations, amnesia, and coma. Because most of the GHB consumed in the US is manufactured illegally, it’s impossible to know the concentration of GHB in each dose without testing it in a lab. Furthermore, the difference between a low dose of GHB and a potentially lethal dose of GHB can be relatively small.
The short-term side effects of GHB may include:
The body quickly breaks down GHB, which becomes difficult to detect in urine after 24 hours.
Some of GHB’s effects may at low doses feel similar to those of Stimulants, but GHB is a Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressant. As such, overdose typically involves respiratory depression. When a person overdoses on GHB, often onlookers mistakenly believe the person is sleeping while the individual is actually asphyxiating.
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GHB is dangerous enough on its own but can quickly become fatal if mixed with other Depressants, including alcohol, Benzodiazepines, Opioids, and Barbiturates. When these types of substances are taken together, functions the CNS is responsible for (such as breathing and heart rate) are slowed to the point that they may stop altogether.
There are signs to be on the lookout for if you think someone is under the effects of GHB and other substances. Alcohol and GHB can make someone feel sick, leading to nausea and vomiting. They may act uncharacteristically sluggish or confused. If they are hallucinating, they may not be able to respond properly or even walk. If the individual passes out, or if their breathing becomes erratic, seek immediate medical attention.
When taken orally, people typically start to feel the effects of GHB in as little as 10 to 20 minutes.
Since 1990, there have only been 72 deaths directly linked to GHB. Experts believe the actual number is likely much higher.
Since 1990, there have been over 16,000 GHB-related overdoses in the US.
Yes, it is possible to become addicted to GHB. When users take the drug repeatedly at low doses, they can develop a tolerance to its effects. This means they’ll need to take more and more of the drug to get the same effects.
I became a real-life cautionary tale a few weeks later at a New Year’s Eve bash, when I drank a beer and took an extra capful of GHB when my regular dose stopped doing the trick. Four hours later, I woke up in a puddle of my own vomit and my concerned friends standing over me trying to find a heartbeat.
Overdose symptoms from GHB involve headaches, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, seizures, reduced breathing and heart rate, amnesia, loss of consciousness, coma, and death.
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When a person stops taking GHB, they may experience symptoms of withdrawal — especially if their body has become dependent on the drug to feel normal. Usually, symptoms of GHB withdrawal involve feelings of anxiety, insomnia, shaking, sweating, increased heart rate, and psychotic thoughts. Sometimes, these symptoms are severe and require medical supervision and addiction treatment inside of a detox facility or rehab center for a period of 7 to 14 days.
There are no proven addiction treatment medications for a GHB addiction. For some, controlled doses of Benzodiazepines, Antidepressants, or Anticonvulsants may be prescribed during treatment. Recovery professionals recommend facing a GHB addiction with a long-term treatment plan that promotes positive decision-making, improvements to overall health, and learning coping skills.
If you or someone you care about needs information about rehab or detox services, contact a treatment provider today.
Destiny Bezrutczyk is a Digital Content Writer from west Iowa. She earned a Bachelor’s in English Language and Literature from Texas Tech University. After working as a freelance script and blog writer, she began writing content for tech startups. Maintaining a passion for words, she took on a variety of projects where her writing could help people (especially those battling mental health and substance use disorders).
Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional
Deborah Montross Nagel
Deborah has a Master’s Degree from Lesley University and has been certified as an Addictions Counselor in PA since 1986. She is currently a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor – CAADC. She is nationally certified as a MAC – Master Addictions Counselor – by NAADAC (The National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors). Her 37 years of experience and education are in addiction, recovery, and codependency. Addiction affects the entire system around the addict. There is no "bad guy" in the system. Fight the addiction, and help the addict. I help loved ones restore sanity to their lives and hence encourage change. Recovery is possible!
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