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How to Use Sleep Medications Safely

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Practicing good sleep hygiene can be a great way to improve your sleep, but sometimes, you may require a little bit more support to get some quality shuteye. Sleep medications1 can help support sleep disorders such as insomnia and are available in prescription, supplement, or over-the-counter form.

Still, as with any medication, sleep medications come with both pros and cons that include health benefits and potential side effects. It’s important to know how to use sleep medications safely to prevent the risk of dependency and other concerns like next-day grogginess.1

For many, sleep medications make a world of difference when it comes to getting consistent, good sleep. Others might want to opt for sleep supplements, or cognitive behavioral therapy to help treat insomnia.1 Whatever your preference might be, we have all the information you need to make an informed decision about sleep medications and whether or not they’re right for you.

What Are Sleep Medications?

As the name says, sleep medications help you sleep. Sleep medications, or sleeping pills, as they’re more commonly known, achieve this effect by making you feel drowsy and relaxed. Others work by quieting the area of the brain that keeps you alert, which may be a cause of insomnia. Sleep medications are also called hypnotics, sedatives, and sleep aids.1

According to the CDC2, about 8.4 percent of U.S. adults recently reported using sleep medication every day or most days to help them fall asleep. Survey findings also discovered that women (10.2 percent) were more likely than men (6.6 percent) to take sleep medicine.

Prescription vs. Supplement vs. OTC Sleep Medications

While there are also sleep supplements, like melatonin and chamomile, this article focuses mostly on prescription sleep medications, which are medications prescribed by a healthcare provider, and over-the-counter sleep medications, which you can purchase online or at a pharmacy.

Typically, prescription sleeping pills are much stronger than nonprescription sleeping pills and are used for more serious cases of sleep disorders.1 The three most common types of prescription sleeping pills include antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and Z-drugs like Ambien (zolpidem) and Lunesta (eszopiclone).

Nonprescription sleep medications, on the other hand, are widely available and don’t require a prescription or a visit to a doctor’s office to purchase. Sometimes, these sleeping pills contain an antihistamine, which is a drug that treats allergies, but also can make you drowsy.1 A common antihistamine used for sleep is Benadryl (diphenhydramine). Still, while nonprescription over-the-counter sleeping pills can be purchased by just about any adult, they can come with risks that we’ll dive into below.

How to Find the Right Sleep Medication

No one sleep medication works the same for all people universally. The right sleep medication for you, if any, will depend on the type and severity of your sleep issues, health, age, and overall lifestyle. For short-term and mild sleep disturbances, such as jet lag or adjusting to shift work, many people opt for sleep supplements like melatonin3, which can have fewer side effects.

Yet if your sleep concerns are due to more serious experiences — like an ongoing divorce, death in the family, or other stressful situations — a prescription sleeping pill for short-term use may be effective. Those with chronic insomnia4, which is insomnia that occurs three or more nights a week, lasts more than three months and isn’t due to another health condition, may require a comprehensive treatment plan that may include prescription sleeping pills.

Learn More: What is Insomnia?

What to Consider When Using Sleep Medications

You’ll want to consider several factors when using sleep medications. For starters, what is your reason for wanting to use sleeping pills? Is it to solve a temporary sleep issue, such as adjusting to a new time zone on vacation, or do you find yourself struggling to fall and stay asleep most nights of the week? If the issue is the latter, you may be a candidate for sleep medications.

Still, regardless of your concern, you should always speak to a healthcare provider before starting any sleep medication — including nonprescription varieties. That’s because all sleeping pills, even the ones available on pharmacy shelves, come with potential side effects. Sleeping pills can also interfere with other medications and may not be safe for certain health conditions. They should also be used cautiously in pregnancy, as some sleep medications aren’t safe for developing babies since any medication you take while pregnant may be passed to the baby.1

Are Sleep Medications Regulated? 

If you’re wondering whether sleep medications are regulated, the answer is yes. Regulation refers to standards taken to ensure the safety, efficacy, and quality of medicine. Prescription sleeping pills5 and nonprescription medications that are in the “over-the-counter” category are regulated.

For example, popular name-brand varieties of over-the-counter sleeping pills like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or Unisom (doxylamine) are regulated. However, the same can’t be said for sleep aids like melatonin or valerian root, since these sleep aids fall into the category of dietary supplements. 

Supplements7 are regulated by the FDA just not to the same extent, so it’s important to do your homework before purchasing a sleep supplement, which includes talking to a healthcare provider and using a reputable brand.

Side Effects of Sleep Medications

Prescription, over-the-counter, and supplement sleep products come with potential side effects, some of which can be serious. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about eight in 10 people experience a hangover-like effect the day after taking sleep medicine.1 So, side effects may be more common than you think. 

These are possible side effects of sleeping pills1:

  • Next-day drowsiness
  • Dizziness or balance problems
  • Problems driving, going to school, or completing daily tasks
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Dry mouth
  • Headaches
  • Muscle weakness
  • Digestive problems, like gas, heartburn, and nausea

Are Sleeping Pills Safe to Use?

In general, sleeping pills are only recommended for short-term use. This is because of the potential side effects risk and rebound effect, which means insomnia may come back after you discontinue using sleeping pills.1 Some medications can also take a long time to get off of.

Since sleeping pills make you drowsy, it’s also recommended not to mix sleeping pills with other sedatives or alcohol, as this can increase the risk of overdosing or other side effects.1

While this depends largely on the type of sleep medicine, some prescription sleeping pills also carry the risk of parasomnia, a potentially dangerous sleep disorder that can cause you to sleepwalk, eat, and even drive in your sleep. Many people don’t remember doing these things, but parasomnia is most commonly seen in people who take Z-drugs like Ambien (zolpidem) or Lunesta (eszopiclone).1

Can You Use Sleep Medication Every Night?

Many experts caution to avoid taking sleep medication every night, if possible. This is because your body can start to depend on them and even get “used to” a dose, also known as tolerance, — causing you to potentially need to increase your dose in order to achieve the same effect.1

Sleep Medication Dependency

The phenomenon we noted above is known as sleep medication dependency. Sometimes, dependency can grow more serious and turn into potential substance abuse. The risk of addiction is another reason why sleeping pills are often recommended for short-term use.

Learn More: How to Get Off Sleeping Pills

Who Should Avoid Using Sleep Medications?

People with health conditions, who are pregnant, or take other medication should always consult with a healthcare provider about the safety of using sleep medications. Sleep medications can interfere with other medicines and conditions, and may not be safe in pregnancy.

Safest Types of Sleep Aids

It’s tough to say which sleep aids are the safest since all sleep aids carry risks. There are pros and cons to prescription sleeping pills, over-the-counter sleeping pills, and sleep supplements. Prescription sleep medication, for example, might be the most effective for severe cases of chronic insomnia but can come with the risk of dependency.

Over-the-counter sleep aids, on the other hand, might be widely available but can often contain other medication8 (think: Tylenol PM, which has both antihistamine and pain-relieving medicine). Those extra additions could interfere with certain health conditions or other medications you might take and may carry the risk of an entirely different group of potential side effects.

Then there are the benefits and downsides of sleep supplements like melatonin. While side effects are relatively low compared to stronger sleeping pills, sleep supplements still carry the risk of side effects — and everyone reacts differently to them. There’s also the issue of a lack of strict regulation on sleep supplements, so dosage, quality, and ingredients aren’t always guaranteed.3

Explore the Best Melatonin Supplements for Sleep.

Tips for Better Sleep Without Medication

Sleep medication can be a lifesaver for many people. Yet there are still steps you can take to promote better sleep without medication. However, if your sleep issues are severe, always talk to a healthcare provider first, as these tips may not be effective for your individual needs.

Practicing good sleep hygiene is one of the best ways to break old sleep habits and develop new ones. Sleep hygiene refers to the set of behaviors, habits, and environmental factors that surround your sleep. Here are a few easy lifestyle changes you can make for better sleep:

  • Keep your bedroom cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable
  • Avoid caffeine use late in the day
  • Exercise daily, but don’t exercise just before bed
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
  • Maintain consistent bedtime habits (such as reading a book)
  • Steer clear of smartphones, laptops, and TVs in bed
  • Invest in ear plugs and/or a sleep eye mask

If these strategies don’t work, you might benefit from a sleeping pill. Be sure to speak to your doctor about your concerns and discuss the pros and cons before starting any medication.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to fall asleep after taking sleep medication?

While the time it takes to fall asleep after taking sleep medication can vary from person to person, the Cleveland Clinic estimates that people who take sleep aids fall asleep about eight to 20 minutes faster than people who don’t take sleep aids.1

When is the right time to take a sleeping pill?

A sleeping pill should be taken just before bed. This is because sleeping pills carry the risk of dizziness and other side effects that make it unwise to be up and moving or walking around.1

Is it harmful to take sleeping pills every night?

Many experts recommend avoiding taking sleeping pills every night, if possible. The reason: sleeping pills can come with the risk of dependency and addiction. Still, some people with severe chronic insomnia may be instructed to take sleeping pills every night.

Ashley Zlatopolsky

Ashley Zlatopolsky

Content Writer

About Author

Ashley Zlatopolsky is a Detroit-based writer and editor who specializes in sleep content. She writes about sleep health, hygiene and products for Sleep Advisor, Mattress Clarity, Real Simple, and more.

Side Sleeper


  1. “Sleeping pills”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified April 27, 2021.
  2. Reuben, Cynthia., Elgaddal, Nazik., Black, Lindsey I. “Sleep medication use in adults aged 18 and over: United States, 2020”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2023.
  3. “Melatonin for jet lag”. Harvard Health Publishing. 2015.
  4. “What is insomnia?” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. 2022.
  5. Lie, Janette D., et al. “Pharmacological treatment of insomnia”. Pharmacy and Therapeutics. 2015.
  6. “Over-the-counter drugs: information on FDA’s regulation of most OTC drugs”. U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2020.
  7. “Dietary supplements”. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. 2023.
  8. “Are drugstore sleep aids safe?” Harvard Health Publishing. 2021.