Sleeping Pill Safety: 10 Dos and Don'ts

Follow these guidelines if you take an over-the-counter or prescription sleep medicine.

From the WebMD Archives

It's 3 a.m. and you're staring at the green glow of your digital clock, wondering if you'll get any shut-eye before the alarm blasts in a few short hours. After several sleepless nights, you're feeling cranky and lethargic. Is it safe to start taking a sleep medication?

Many people turn to sleep aids because insomnia and sleep shortage have become commonplace in this country, leading to potentially serious consequences. In a 2008 National Sleep Foundation poll, 29% of respondents -- nearly one-third -- reported falling asleep or feeling very sleepy at work within the past month. And 36% reported that within the past year, they fell asleep while driving or nodded off at the wheel. Going without enough sleep can also lead to headaches and contribute to depression.

In light of all that lost sleep, it's no wonder that millions of people turn to over-the-counter and prescription sleep medicines. If you're one of them, here's what you need to know to use those products safely.

Types of Sleep Medicines

Some people seek out over-the-counter sleep aids, such as melatonin, valerian, and products with antihistamines, including Benadryl, Sominex, and Tylenol PM. Others take prescribed antidepressants with sedating effects, even though these drugs aren't FDA-approved for treating insomnia.

Other people use prescription sleep medications approved specifically for insomnia. In the past, doctors frequently prescribed an older class of drugs called benzodiazepines, including Dalmane, Halcion, and Restoril. But benzodiazepines carry serious risks of physical addiction and overdose.

Nowadays, doctors are more likely to prescribe a newer class of sleep drugs called "gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA) medications," which appear to be less risky for addiction, although a small potential exists. Common brands include Lunesta, Ambien, and Sonata.

These GABA drugs help patients fall asleep, stay asleep, or both. They're an improvement over benzodiazepines, experts tell WebMD.

"In general, the medications that are approved for the treatment of insomnia by the FDA are quite safe and effective medications with relatively low side effect profiles," says Michael J. Sateia, MD, professor of psychiatry and chief of the section of sleep medicine at Dartmouth Medical School. "Most folks tolerate these medications well."

Rozerem, a melatonin receptor agonist, is another type of prescription medication that helps people fall asleep more quickly.

All sleep aids or medications must be used carefully. For instance, you should never combine them with alcohol. Prescription sleeping pills can also trigger disturbed sleep behaviors, such as sleep-eating and sleep-driving, especially if used improperly.

Here are 10 dos and don'ts for taking sleep medicines.