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5 Ways You May Be Misusing Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids



If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about finding a more natural solution.

Faced with another night of tossing and turning followed by a day made harder by a lack of sleep, many people turn to an over-the-counter sleep aid for help. However, it’s a slippery slope from using a sleeping pill once in a while to relying on it every night – and many people quickly find themselves unable to get a good night’s rest without it.

A recent Consumer Reports survey revealed that 18 percent of people who took an over-the-counter sleep aid did so every day, and 41 percent said they had been taking them for a year or longer. Experts say that’s too much – it’s meant as a temporary solution, designed to be used for two weeks or less. If you’re still having sleep problems longer than that, you should talk to your doctor.

What’s in a Sleep Aid? Not a Harmless Pill.

Over-the-counter sleep aids come in all shapes and sizes. They may be mixed with a pain reliever, such as Tylenol PM (with acetaminophen) or Advil PM (with ibuprofen). Others are designed solely as sleep aids, like Unisom, ZzzQuil and Sominex.

The common ingredient in most sleep aids is diphenhydramine, an antihistamine that has been around for several decades. If you’ve ever taken Benadryl or other allergy medication for seasonal allergies and felt drowsy afterward, you’ve experienced the effects of diphenhydramine.

Aside from sedation and sleepiness, sleeping aids with diphenhydramine have other side effects. It may make you feel dizzy, cause you to experience dry mouth, nose and throat, cause constipation and make it difficult to urinate. Some studies also link diphenhydramine to scarier conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Certain people should not take over-the-counter sleeping aids, or should check with their doctor first. This includes people who have a chronic disease, take other medication and pregnant women. Kids under 12 should never take a sleep aid.

Are You Misusing Sleep Aids?

If you’re using a sleep aid in the following ways, you may be misusing it:

  1. You haven’t talked with your doctor: While you don’t have to talk to your doctor about using an over-the-counter sleep aid, it’s a good idea to check in with them. This is true especially if your sleep problem lasts for more than a few days.
  2. You take more than the recommended amount: Your tolerance to the active ingredient in sleep aids will build quickly, which means you’ll need more of the drug to get the same effect. This may lead you to use more than the recommended dose listed on the label.
  3. You use sleep aids for longer than two weeks: If you find yourself reaching for a sleep aid for longer than two weeks, you may have chronic insomnia that needs medical intervention. Sleep aids, even though they are sold over the counter, can be habit forming.
  4. You mix sleep aids with other medications or alcohol: Mixing medications or drinking while taking a sleep aid is a recipe for disaster. Alcohol and other medications can increase the sedative effects of sleep aids.
  5. You substitute sleep aids for healthy sleep habits: If you’re using sleep aids as a crutch for bad sleeping habits, you may be misusing them. Getting a good night’s sleep requires getting enough exercise, reducing caffeine and finding ways to manage your stress.

If you’re having trouble sleeping and find that you’re relying on sleep aids more frequently, talk to your doctor about finding a more natural solution.

Crozer Health Sleep Centers

Established in 1978, the Crozer Health Sleep Centers' sleep program is the first in the Delaware Valley to earn national accreditation. If you think you may have a sleep disorder, call the Crozer Health Sleep Centers at 1-888-SLEEP-03 (1-888-753-3703) or use our easy online request form 24 hours a day.

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