Drugs Q & A

Can You Overdose On Sleeping Pills?

In America, 70% of adults report that they obtain insufficient sleep at least one night a month, and 11% report insufficient sleep every night. It is estimated that sleep-related problems affect 50 to 70 million Americans of all ages and socioeconomic classes.

Sleeping pills help people catch some sleep. People who have sleep disorders like insomnia may take these medications to help them fall asleep. Sleeping medicines can also help you stay asleep if you’re prone to waking up in the middle of the night. Nearly 9 million U.S. adults take prescription sleep aids, with use more common among those who are older, female, white and better educated, according to the first government survey.

How do sleeping pills work?

There are various types of sleeping pills. Each works differently. Some sleep aids cause drowsiness, while others silence the area of the brain that keeps you alert.

How effective are sleeping pills?

Studies show that sleeping pills aren’t that helpful in promoting a good night’s rest. Most people who take sleep aids fall asleep about eight to 20 minutes faster than those without medicine. On average, you might get an additional 35 minutes of shuteye.

Generally, sleep aids should be for short-term use. They may be most helpful if a stressful life event, such as a divorce or death in the family, is keeping you awake.

What are other names for sleeping pills?

Sleeping pills go by many names:

  • Hypnotics.
  • Sedatives.
  • Sleep aids.
  • Sleep medicine.
  • Tranquilizers.

Who might need sleeping pills?

An estimated one in seven Americans have long-term insomnia. Sleep difficulties become more common as you age. Approximately one in three older people take some type of sleep medicine.

What are the types of over-the-counter (OTC) sleeping pills?

Any adult can buy OTC sleep medications at a store. OTC sleep aids often contain an antihistamine. This drug treats allergies, but it can also make you drowsy.

Some people take melatonin or valerian supplements to help them sleep. Melatonin is a hormone your body naturally produces that promotes sleep. Valerian is a herb that supposedly aids relaxation and sleep.

Although these sleep aids are easily accessible, you should check with your healthcare provider before taking them. Drugs in over-the-counter sleep aids (including supplements) can interfere with other medications or make health conditions worse.

What are the types of prescription sleeping pills?

Prescription sleeping pills are stronger than over-the-counter ones. You need a prescription from your healthcare provider to get these pills.

Types of prescription sleeping pills include:

  • Antidepressants.
  • Benzodiazepines.
  • Z-drugs (Ambien® and Lunesta®).

What are the potential side effects of sleeping pills?

Approximately eight out of 10 people experience a hangover effect the day after taking sleep medicine. They feel drowsy, have muddled thinking and experience dizziness or balance problems. These daytime effects can negatively impact your ability to drive, work, go to school and complete daily tasks.

Over-the-counter and prescription sleeping pills (and supplements) can cause these side effects:

  • Constipation or diarrhea.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Headaches.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Digestive problems, including gas, heartburn and nausea.

Can you overdose on sleeping pills?

Yes, you can overdose on sleeping pills which can lead to a number of unwanted outcomes, depending on the type of medication and dose. Sleeping pills do not often cause a lethal overdose when taken alone. However, this is not to say it’s impossible — certain sleep medications can lead to death as a consequence of overdose.

When you take sleeping medicines night after night, your body may start to depend on them. When you stop the medicine, your insomnia may come back worse than before. This effect is called rebound insomnia.

If you’ve used sleep aids for a long time, talk to your healthcare provider about how to stop safely. It may take months to stop taking the pills. You also shouldn’t mix sleep aids with other sedatives or alcohol. There’s also a possibility of overdosing.

What are the potential risks or complications of prescription sleeping pills?

Some prescription sleep medicines may bring on parasomnia. This disruptive sleep disorder can cause dangerous behaviors while you’re still mostly asleep. People who take Z-drugs, in particular, may sleepwalk or eat, take medications, talk or even drive, all while unaware that they’re doing these things. You may appear to be awake, but your brain is not fully alert. Most people don’t remember doing these things after they wake up.

Benzodiazepines can be addictive and lead to substance abuse. To lower this risk, healthcare providers only prescribe these sleeping pills for short-term use. You’re more likely to get a prescription for Z-drugs instead.

Are sleeping pills safe during pregnancy?

Any medication you take while pregnant or breastfeeding passes to the baby. Check with your healthcare provider before taking any over-the-counter sleeping pills or supplements. For extreme insomnia, a provider may prescribe a short-term sleep aid.

Are sleeping pills safe for children?

Some parents give over-the-counter antihistamine medications to children to help them sleep. These medicines aren’t approved for sleep purposes. There’s a risk of overdosing a child.

Don’t give a child supplements like melatonin. There’s no research on their safety in children.

Currently, there are no prescription sleep medicines available for children. Changing a child’s sleep behaviors is often the best way to improve sleep.

How can I sleep better without sleeping pills?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective tool for improving sleep and curing insomnia. Behavioral changes often improve sleep without the need for medications.

You may want to:

  • Avoid large meals and alcohol before bed.
  • Cut back on caffeine, including coffee, sodas and chocolate, throughout the day and especially before bedtime.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Relax with soothing music, a good book or meditation.
  • Shut off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Stay physically active during the day. Try to get outside, if possible.
  • Stick to a sleep schedule (same bedtime and wake-up time) even on weekends.
  • Turn your bedroom into a dark, quiet and cool sanctuary.

You may find useful information on: How Does Ashwagandha Compare to Melatonin for Sleep? 

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