Sleeping Pill Safety: 10 Dos and Don'ts

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

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1. Do talk to your doctor about your sleep problems.

If you have insomnia, see your physician first to get a proper diagnosis. Your doctor or a sleep specialist may be able to pinpoint a cause, for example, a sleep disorder or a medical problem, such as depression. Treating insomnia without a thorough exam can mask an underlying problem that requires care.

Be sure to tell your doctor about all health conditions and all drugs that you're using, including prescription, over-the-counter, and complementary medicines. If your doctor prescribes sleeping pills, he or she needs to ensure that they won't interact with other drugs or worsen any medical problems.

Before you use any sleep aids or drugs, read all instructions and package inserts carefully to understand safe use and to learn about possible side effects.

2. Do time your medications properly before bedtime and plan for a full night's sleep.

Make sure that you've scheduled enough time for a full night's sleep, typically seven to eight hours for most people. If you take a sleep drug and wake up after only a few hours, you may still feel groggy.

Timing is key, Sateia says. "If someone has a sleep onset problem, they probably [should] take these medications perhaps 20-30 minutes before bedtime." Once you've taken a sleeping pill, it's important to get into bed quickly, Sateia says, "probably no more than 10-15 minutes after ingesting the medication."

Most prescription sleep medicines reach maximum levels about 1 to 1 ½ hours after someone takes them, Sateia says.

3. Do stop waking activities after you've taken a sleeping pill.

Going to bed within a few minutes after taking a prescription sleeping pill will help prevent "complex sleep-related behaviors." According to the FDA, people on sleep drugs have eaten, made phone calls, had sex, and even driven while not fully awake -- and they have no memory of those acts.

As Sateia explains, people enter a "sleep-walking" phase while they're still awake, rather than entering from a sleeping state. That can produce some of the untoward effects, like eating disturbances or bizarre behavior, Sateia says.

It's easy for people to get sidetracked, Sateia says. "They take their sleep medication, and they may intend to get into bed, and then they say, 'Oh, I forgot to do this, I need to do that,' and they're up and 45 minutes later, they're trying to eat the plant because their brain has gone home for the day."

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