Are Sleeping Pills Safe?

While sleeping pills may provide relief for individuals struggling with chronic sleep issues, they also pose a danger to those who use them. Prolonged sleeping pill use can lead to addiction and a number of health-related consequences.
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Sleeping medications are often used as a quick way to treat symptoms of insomnia, which are commonly caused by an underlying sleep disorder. Habitual sleeping pill users, even those taking them as properly prescribed, can easily become reliant on the medication to fall sleep. This can lead to a number of health consequences, including physical and psychological addiction.

Research suggests that the most effective method to cure chronic insomnia is to treat the underlying disorder rather than simply use sleeping pills. Cognitive behavioral therapy, in which individuals learn how to change their behaviors to promote better sleeping patterns, is considered the most effective treatment for chronic insomnia.

Other natural ways to improve sleep habits, include:
  • Maintaining a regular sleep schedule
  • Exercising routinely
  • Avoiding caffeine
  • Avoiding daytime naps
  • Limiting stress

Identifying the underlying cause of insomnia or a sleep disorder should be the first course of action, and you should only resort to sleeping pills when medically necessary.

Safely Using Sleeping Medications

Generally, sleeping pills are most effective when not used habitually. They may be helpful for individuals who require a sleep aid for travel or experience disrupted sleep or irregular stress that may be hindering their normal sleeping patterns. However, prolonged use of sleeping pills may diminish the effectiveness of the medication.

The dosage, frequency and length of a medication regimen are important for a patient’s safety and should be determined by a doctor with experience in treating sleeping disorders.

When deciding if a sleeping medication is the right course of action for an individual, the prescribing doctor should:

If your doctor immediately prescribes sleeping pills and does not take the steps listed above, you may want to consider seeing another doctor or a sleep specialist.

Types of Sleeping Medications

Doctors prescribe many different kinds of sleeping medications, each with its own set of side effects and intended treatment purpose. Historically, doctors treated sleep issues with benzodiazepines, central nervous system depressant medications that can have serious side effects. Newer non-benzodiazepines have fewer potentially dangerous side effects, but do not come without risks.

The majority of available prescription sleeping pills can be addictive, abusing the prescription drugs increases the chance of becoming addicted.

The sleeping medications that can lead to addiction include:
  • Estazolam
  • Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  • Temazepam (Restoril)
  • Triazolam (Halcion)
  • Zaleplon (Sonata)
  • Zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo, Zolpimist)
  • Zolpidem extended release (Ambien CR)

Patients considering sleeping pills as a treatment option for sleep issues should ask their doctor about the side effects and potential for addiction development before beginning a medication regimen.

Sleeping Pill Side Effects

Although certain sleeping medications can cause unique side effects, general sleeping pill side effects include:
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Headache
  • Gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, nausea)
  • Prolonged drowsiness
  • Daytime memory and performance problems
  • Allergic reaction
  • Parasomnia (undesirable behaviors during sleep)
  • Withdrawals
  • Overdose
  • Death

Before taking a prescription or over-the-counter sleep aid, talk to your doctor about the potential side effects.

Sleeping Pill Overdose

Sedative-hypnotic drugs, such as Ambien or Edluar, are used to treat insomnia and other sleeping disorders. These medications can cause serious side effects, including overdose.

Symptoms of sleeping pill overdose include:
  • Drowsiness
  • Shallow breathing
  • Slowed heartbeat
  • Coma

A class of drugs called benzodiazepines is commonly used to treat insomnia, and they are generally safe compared to other tranquilizers and sedatives. Still, taking more of these drugs than prescribed by a physician can lead to overdose.

Benzodiazepine overdose rarely causes death. However, mixing sleeping pills with other substances can be dangerous. For example, combining sleeping pills with alcohol increases the sedative effects of sleeping pills. Mixing these drugs can cause extreme organ damage and increase the risk for overdose and death.

In you witness someone overdosing on sleeping pills, contact a local poison control center by calling 800-222-1222. If the individual is not breathing, call 911.

Other Dangers from Sleeping Pills

Combining certain behaviors or activities with sleeping pill use can lead to increased risks of danger and harm to you and others.

These behaviors include:
Impaired driving
Sleeping pills can cause people to feel drowsy or experience effects similar to those from alcohol use when used improperly. You should never drive or operate machinery after taking sleeping pills.
Abnormal behaviors that an individual does not remember after taking a sleeping medication are called parasomnias, and they are a common side effect of sleeping medications. Individuals may exhibit behaviors such as sleep eating, sleep walking and sleep driving. People experiencing sleep behaviors are not in control of their own actions and present a danger to themselves and others.
Falling injuries
Some sleeping medications, such as zolpidem, have been linked to increased risks of falls among users, which can result in injuries and even death.
Higher risk of death
Studies have shown that those who use sleep medications have more than three times the likelihood of life-threatening incidents when prescribed fewer than 18 sleeping pills per year. Further research indicates sleeping pills lead to an increased risk of cancer-related death as well.

The behavioral and long-term side effects of sleeping pills could potentially have a serious impact on your life and your health, so it is important to take them into consideration.

Sleeping Pill Addiction

Many individuals become reliant on sleeping medications to sleep every night and quickly become addicted. Quitting on their own is often not an option because many sleeping medications require a gradual reduction in dosage to safely discontinue use. Additionally, many individuals experience uncomfortable withdrawals when trying to end their sleeping pill habit. Treatment is available for those with sleeping medication addictions, and it can help individuals return to a normal life and healthy sleep patterns.

Medical Disclaimer: aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Trey Dyer
Content Writer,
Trey Dyer is a writer for and an advocate for substance abuse treatment. Trey is passionate about sharing his knowledge and tales about his own family’s struggle with drug addiction to help others overcome the challenges that face substance dependent individuals and their families. Trey has a degree in journalism from American University and has been writing professionally since 2011.

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