Medical Disclaimer: The content on this page should not be taken as medical advice or used as a recommendation for any specific medication. Always consult your doctor before taking any new medication or changing your current dosage.
Are you having trouble sleeping? Some people take sleeping pills to relieve short-term stress, jet lag, or another temporary issue that’s interfering with their sleep at night. Some sleep medications help you fall asleep, others help you stay asleep, and some do both.
But, are sleeping pills safe? Prescription sleeping medication can be habit-forming, and many side effects are undesirable. Therefore, it’s important to understand how they work and what side effects you can expect.
What Are the Side Effects of Sleep Medication?
Potential side effects vary by medication, but you may experience one or more of the following when taking sleeping pills:
Burning or tingling sensation in the hands, arms, feet, or legs
- Change in appetite
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Drowsiness during the day
- Dry mouth or throat
- Mental impairment the following day
- Difficulty paying attention or remembering things
- Stomach pain
- Impaired balance
- Uncontrollable shaking
- Weird dreams or nightmares
The “hangover” effect is one of the most common side effects of sleep medication like benzodiazepine hypnotics and zopiclone. This term refers to side effects like drowsiness, difficulty with balance or motor coordination, and impaired focus or memory. 80 percent of people taking prescription sleep aids report feeling at least one of these side effects the following day. For example, sleeping pills can impact your driving the morning after you take them. These side effects can also negatively affect work performance, social relationships, and overall wellbeing and quality of life.
Are the Side Effects of Sleeping Pills Dangerous?
Depending on your particular situation, any of the above side effects can be dangerous, and some side effects should cause immediate concern. These include parasomnias, allergic reactions, and dependence or abuse of the medication.
Parasomnia describes a number of unusual behaviors people experience while asleep, such as sleepwalking or wetting the bed. The most common parasomnias associated with sleep aids are sleep walking, sleep talking, sleep eating, and sleep driving. These behaviors can be more common with increased dosage, so it’s important to only take the medication exactly as prescribed by your doctor.
As with any medication, you could also have an allergic reaction to sleeping pills. If you are having an allergic reaction, you may notice one or more of the following side effects. Stop taking the medication and see a doctor immediately.
- Blurred vision
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Irregular or pounding heartbeat
- Sensation of your throat closing up
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling up of your eyes, lips, face, tongue, or throat
While most sleeping pills are designed just for short-term use (a number of weeks or less), some people may continue to use them on a longer-term basis. With longer-term use, you increase your risk of developing a tolerance. When this happens, some people end up increasing their dosage or abusing the sleeping pill, which results in more problematic side effects.
Sleeping pill addiction can cause side effects like impaired motor coordination, vertigo, inability to focus or remember things, and euphoria. It’s also possible to become psychologically dependent on the medication. You may develop anxiety or fear around falling asleep, and become worried that you won’t be able to fall asleep without the medication. Some people start combining the medication with alcohol, which is itself a sedative. The combination of these together is extremely dangerous, as your breathing may slow down to such an extent that it causes death.
Prolonged use can increase the intensity or frequency of side effects, and develop into dependence. This is why it’s important to stop taking the medication when your prescription ends. If your sleep issues persist, consult your doctor.
What Should I Do if I Experience Side Effects?
If you notice severe or dangerous side effects, consult your doctor immediately.
If you notice more mild side effects, you should still speak to your doctor as soon as possible. They may be able to suggest a lower dose, a different medication, or a plan for slowly weaning off the medication.
Know that rebound insomnia can occur when you stop using prescription sleep aids, especially if you stop cold-turkey. It can also happen as you’re gradually lowering your dosage. Rebound insomnia can feel even more frustrating than your original insomnia, as you may experience vivid dreams, nightmares, and anxiety. If you experience this, talk to your doctor. They may suggest lowering your dose more gradually.
Who Should Be Concerned About Sleep Medication?
Taking sleep medication is a decision that should always be considered carefully, and should involve consulting a doctor first to help evaluate the risks and benefits. Some people may be more at risk when taking sleep medication. These include:
- Individuals with chronic lung conditions like asthma, emphysema, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Some sleeping pills can slow your breathing and increase the risk of respiratory failure. Similarly, individuals with low blood pressure and arrhythmias should avoid taking sleep medication.
- Individuals with liver or kidney disease. These conditions affect the body’s metabolism, which in turn may affect how long the sleeping pill stays in your system, leading to more daytime impairment and drowsiness.
- Pregnant or breast-feeding women. Some sleeping medications have been linked to depression, impaired memory, and loss of motor coordination to greater extents in pregnant women. Doctors may advise avoiding these altogether. If medication is required, doctors may prescribe it in lower doses.
- Older adults. Research indicates older adults are more likely to experience the side effects of sleeping pills, especially dizziness, lightheadedness, impaired balance, confusion, and sedation. These can increase their risk of falling or getting injured. If sleep medication is required, doctors may prescribe a lower dose to mediate their risk.
- Individuals taking other medications. Prescription drugs and over-the-counter medication can negatively interact with sleeping pills, which may increase your risk of experiencing side effects. If you’re taking other medications or supplements, be sure to discuss this with your doctor prior to starting sleeping medication.
Questions To Ask Your Doctor About Sleep Aids and Side Effects
If you are considering taking sleep medication, always consult your doctor and explain your situation in detail. Tell them what kind of sleep issues you’ve been having, when they started, and how frequently you experience them. This information can help them prescribe an appropriate treatment plan to relieve your sleep issues.
Regarding medication side effects, consider asking your doctor these questions:
- Are there other things in my life that could be contributing to my sleep issues, such as stress, diet, exercise, or a poor sleep environment?
- What types of sleep medication would be safe for me?
- How often should I take this medication, and at what time of day?
- How should I take the medication? Should I drink water or eat food at the same time, or before?
- Are there any activities I should avoid after taking the medication, such as driving?
- How long should I take this medication?
- Is there a generic version I can take that may be more affordable?
- What side effects can I expect from this medication?
- What side effects should I be concerned about, or cause me to stop taking the medication?
- Are there any food or substances I should avoid when taking this medication, like alcohol or grapefruit?
If your doctor recommends a sleep aid, always read the sleeping pill’s medication guide to make sure you fully understand the risks and potential side effects. Only take it as prescribed by your doctor, and only when you have time to get a full night’s sleep to minimize side effects the next day.
If you’re consistently having trouble falling or staying asleep, talk to your doctor. Behavior and lifestyle changes, in addition to cognitive behavioral therapy, can help. If an underlying issue is behind insomnia, be it a health condition or a sleep disorder, treating that can resolve or improve your insomnia.
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