Over-the-Counter Sleep Medications: How Effective Are They?

Today, you can find many sleep aid medications on the shelves of pharmacies and supermarkets. But are these over-the-counter medications approved? Are they actually effective? Can everyone use them? Learn here about the use of OTC sleep products and their possible side effects, as well as some tips for better sleep.

OTC Sleep Aids Uses and Side Effects

To start with, the FDA has approved the use of over-the-counter sleep aid medications. These meds can be used to help adults and children older than 12 years to treat occasional sleeping difficulties. Most of them contain antihistamine active ingredients like doxylamine or diphenhydramine. Antihistamines are normally used to relieve allergy symptoms. However, since drowsiness is one of their major side effects, antihistamines are also used help with sleeplessness.

Some of the common sleep aid over-the-counter brands include Night-time Sleep Aid, Unisom Sleeptabs that contain doxylamine, and Benadryl, Compoz, Nytol and Sominex containing diphenhydramine. However, there are much more products available on the market. Ambien, one of the most popular insomnia remedies, contains zolpidem as an active ingredient. Some of those meds have a pain medication or a cold and cough medication on their ingredients list, too.

Given so many options, it can be quite difficult to choose the product that will be right for you. Therefore, instead of making a random choice, consult your healthcare provider or a pharmacist. This is especially important if you are taking other medications, as there is a risk of drug interactions. Besides, make sure you read the labels carefully to learn about all the potential side effects and precautions.

Common side effects of over-the-counter sleep medications include drowsiness the next day, dizziness, poor coordination, decreased metal alertness, constipation, dry mouth and throat. These side effects are caused by the antihistamines contained in such medications.

If you experience any of these side effects and notice them get sever, last for more than several days or lead to blurred vision and/or difficulty urinating, you have to contact your doctor or healthcare provider.

In addition, with sleep products containing diphenhydramine, some elderly people may experience the opposite effect and get agitated instead of drowsy.

OTC Sleep Aids Problems

Over-the-counter sleep aids do not treat insomnia. They can only help with occasional sleeplessness and are most effective when used for a short period.
Incorrect use of over-the-counters may lead to certain sleep or medication-related complications. Depending on which medication you are taking and for how long, such complications may include:

  • Tolerance. Tolerance to antihistamines can develop quickly, in less than a week. It means that you will no longer experience the effects with your normal dosage. However, if you take a higher dosage, you will increase your risk for side effects.
  • Dependence. You may also become dependent on your over-the-counter medication meaning you will not be able to sleep without it.
  • Side effects. OTC sleep aids may cause a number of side effects, especially if taken not as instructed or for a longer period.
  • Drug interactions. It is possible that your OTC sleeping medications will interact with other medications that you are using. This may cause dangerous side effects, especially if you are taking other sleep medications, medications for mental health conditions or prescribed pain medications. It is also important not to drink alcohol while taking OTC sleep meds in order to avoid the risk of complications.
  • Rebound sleeplessness. If you stop using your OTC sleep medication after taking it for a long time, you may experience sleep-related problems again, even worse than before.
  • Wrong use of the medication. Your sleep problems may be caused by an underlying health condition. In that case, if you take an OTC sleep product to relieve your sleeplessness, your actual condition will not be treated properly.

The FDA Recommendations for Better Sleep

Medication is not the only thing that can help you overcome sleeping difficulties. Since many factors can contribute to sleep problems, The Food and Drug Administration suggests some lifestyle tips to help you.
To avoid potential sleep issues, try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, and sleep in a dark, quiet room with a comfortable temperature. You should avoid caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol in 4-6 hours before going to bed. Do not eat large meals or exercise within 2 hours of bedtime. Napping in the afternoon or evening is not a good idea either. Try to do something relaxing 30 minutes before bedtime. If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, you should get up and do something quiet. For example, reading can help you get sleepy.