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sedative, any of a variety of drugs that relieve anxiety. Most sedatives act as mild depressants of the nervous system, lessening general nervous activity or reducing the irritability or activity of a specific organ. Sedatives taken in small quantities are useful in relieving coughing, nausea, or convulsions and in lessening anxiety. In increasing doses sedatives act as hypnotics (see hypnotic drugs), i.e., they induce sleep, and as anesthetics. Many sedatives, including barbiturates, meprobamate (Miltown), and benzodiazepines (Librium and Valium), are habit-forming and should be taken only under medical direction. Chloral hydrate, ethyl alcohol, bromide salts, and antihistamines can all be used as sedatives. Tranquilizers are compounds that calm without excessively reducing mental alertness.

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sedative Technically, a drug causing sedation. Useful for the treatment of patients with anxiety, and who are restless and agitated such that normal function is impaired. Sedatives are more properly called anxiolytic drugs. Anxiolytics should not be confused with hypnotics, which cause sleep — although sedation may often allow those with troubling anxieties to be able to sleep. Sedative drugs taken at higher doses can often act as hypnotics in those suffering from insomnia. Until twenty years ago the main group of sedative drugs were the barbiturates, now almost entirely replaced by the benzodiazepines. Miscellaneous other modern drugs, such as glutethimide and meprobamate, are also used as sedatives, as are some very old ones, such as chloral hydrate. The latter mixed with an alcoholic drink is known as a Mickey Finn, used, in detective literature at least, to knock out the ‘goodies’.

Alan W. Cuthbert

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Sedative is a general term used to describe a number of drugs that decrease activity, moderate excitement, and have a calming effect. The primary use for these drugs is to reduce Anxiety, but higher doses will usually cause sleep (a drug used primarily to cause sleep is called a hypnotic ). Although the term sedative is still used, the drugs usually prescribed to produce this calming effect are Benzodiazepines, which are more commonly known as antianxiety agents, or minor tranquilizers.

(See also: Barbiturates ; Drug Types ; Sedative-Hypnotic )


Hobbs, W. R., Rall, T. W., & Verdoorn, T. A. (1996) Hypnotics and sedatives. In J. G. Hardman et al. (Eds.), The pharmacological basis of therapeutics, 9th ed. (361-396). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Scott E. Lukas

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sed·a·tive / ˈsedətiv/ • adj. promoting calm or inducing sleep: the seeds have a sedative effect. • n. a drug taken for its calming or sleep-inducing effect.

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sedative Drug used for its calming effect, to reduce anxiety and tension; at high doses it induces sleep. Sedative drugs include narcotics, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines.

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sedative (sed-ă-tiv) n. a drug that has a calming effect, relieving anxiety and tension. See also anxiolytic.

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