Sleeping pills, both prescription and over the counter (OTC), are a popular remedy for those suffering from disordered sleep. But how does a prescription sleeping pill differ from an over-the-counter sleep medication, and how long can or should you safely take either of them?
The main ingredient in many OTC sleeping pills is an antihistamine which results in the drowsy and sedative effect. Many of the OTC sleep aids are good for specific situations; as an example, an analgesic sleep aid is good when someone has pain keeping them from sleeping. These medications are usually a combination of a pain or inflammation reliever and an antihistamine. Always read the label carefully, and follow the recommended dosage and use instructions. What I would not recommend is that someone take an OTC sleep aid every night. These are not meant for every night use, which the manufacturers say on the box. You need to be responsible for what you take and if you need an OTC every night to aid your sleep, it’s time to speak to a sleep specialist.
Some of the more popular prescription sleeping pills contain zolpidem. While they are very effective, be cautious of potential side effects. These side effects include hallucinations, problems with memory, excessive daytime tiredness, sleepwalking and engaging in other behaviors such as eating and even driving while not fully awake and alert. One way to avoid these side effects is to avoid interactions with other medications and alcoholic beverages, and to always take the prescribed dosage – never take more medication than your doctor tells you to take.
Patients who are prescribed a sleep medication need to give themselves enough time in bed for sleep after taking their dose in the evening. In a clinical setting, it is a standard recommendation that people taking this type of sleep medication have a full 8 hours to spend in bed. If you don’t give yourself enough time to sleep, you are more likely to experience side effects.
When taking a sleeping pill for the first time, I suggest trying it on a Friday night, or a night when you do not have to be up a particular time the next morning. If you find yourself groggy and need to sleep in the following morning you can. You have an added window of time to help you get adjusted to the new medication over the weekend. When there is any change in your pill you also want someone there with you, in case of an adverse reaction.
Remember, whether taking an OTC or prescription sleep medication it should be only as a short-term treatment for disordered sleep.