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Safe use of sleeping pills

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Sleeping pills are used to help you fall asleep and stay asleep for longer.
  • Sleeping pills should only be used short time, to reduce the chance of becoming dependent on them.
  • Speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you are having trouble sleeping.
  • These are many ways to improve your sleep without using medicines.

What are sleeping pills used for?

Sleeping pills are medicines designed to help you fall asleep or stay asleep, and are sometimes used to help treat insomnia. Sleeping pills can have serious side effects, so if you are having sleep problems it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional.

It’s important to remember that sleeping pills might help you sleep, but they do not treat the cause of your insomnia.

What are the different types of sleeping pills?

Some sleeping pills are prescription medicines while others can be purchased over the counter. Some medicines can cause you to become sleepy as a side effect although they are not sleeping pills. Some herbal and traditional medicines are used as sleeping pills, although their safety and effectiveness may not be scientifically proven.

Prescription sleeping pills

Benzodiazepines are the most common type of prescription sleeping pills, for example, temazepam. They are generally recommended for short-term use (less than 4 weeks). Other prescription sleeping pills include zopiclone and zolpidem.

These medicines work by increasing the strength of your brain’s sleep signals that tell your body that it is time to calm down and fall asleep.

Suvorexant (Belsomra) works by helping you to fall asleep and stay asleep for longer. This can be useful for people who wake up during the night and can’t fall back to sleep. Suvorexant (Belsomra) can generally be used for longer periods of time.

Over the counter sleeping pills

Melatonin is a hormone that helps control sleep and waking pattern. Melatonin may improve sleep quality and morning alertness, and can be dispensed by a pharmacist for people over 55 years of age with poor sleep. Some antihistamines (for example, Restavit or doxylamine), can make you drowsy and can be used to help relieve insomnia. Use these only in the short term (for a few days at a time) to re-establish regular sleep patterns.

Herbal and traditional medicines

Herbal and traditional medicines are sometimes used to treat insomnia. Not all of these medicines have been proven to help you fall asleep. The most frequently studied remedies include:

  • chamomile
  • passionflower
  • St John’s Wort
  • valerian and hops combination

Remember that not all of these medicines are safe for everyone to take. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you decide if these medicines are likely to help you sleep, and if they could be right for you, based on any illnesses that you have, or medicines that you take.

Do some medicines have a side effect of sleepiness?

Some medicines not specifically designed as sleeping pills can also make you drowsy. They include some antihistamines that are available over-the-counter. Although you may feel sleepy after taking these antihistamines, this is an unwanted side-effect and they are not intended to be used as sleeping tablets. Not all antihistamines make you feel drowsy.

Some medicines prescribed for mental health conditions can cause sleepiness as a side effect. If you take medicines for your mental health (for example, antidepressants or antipsychotic medicines), ask your doctor or pharmacist if they are likely to make you drowsy.

What are the risks of taking sleeping pills?

One main risk of sleeping pills is that you become dependent on them. This means they become less effective over time, you can't sleep well without them. You may also begin to feel unwell or experience worse insomnia when you try to stop.

Sleeping pills can also make you unsteady, dizzy and forgetful. They can make it hard for you to concentrate. You might feel groggy or tired next day. These side effects may increase your risk of having accidents and falls, especially if you are older.

Some types of sleeping pills can cause you to do things while you are asleep. This could be eating, talking or even driving. This is more likely if you are taking more than one type of sleeping pill or drink alcohol.

How do I use sleeping pills safely?

Always speak to a doctor or pharmacist if you are having trouble sleeping.

If your doctor has prescribed sleeping pills, here are some tips on using them safely:

  • Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you can take your sleeping pills with your other prescription and non-prescription (including herbal and traditional) medicines.
  • Take the pills as prescribed.
  • Ask your doctor how long you need to take them and how to stop safely.
  • Don’t mix sleeping pills with alcohol.
  • Don’t take someone else’s sleeping pills or share yours with anybody.

How can I sleep well without taking medicines?

There are plenty of ways to improve your sleep without medicines. Cognitive therapy is a type of talk therapy that can help people who feel worried about their sleep. Sleep restriction is a behavioural treatment approach can help people who find it hard to stay asleep for the whole night. Your doctor can advise you about non-medicine treatments for your insomnia.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2022

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