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Many Americans suffer from insomnia and commonly turn to prescription medications and over-the-counter sleeping aids for relief. About one in four Americans report taking some type of medication every year to help them sleep.

If you find yourself struggling after a few restless nights of sleep -- perhaps trouble falling asleep, repeated awakenings, or waking up feeling tired, you may decide to try over-the-counter sleeping pills or consult your doctor about prescription sleep medications.

But before you do, you should be aware of the different types of over-the-counter and prescription sleeping medications, potential side effects, safety concerns, and alternatives.

OTC vs. Prescription Drugs

The most common agent in over-the-counter sleeping aids is diphenhydramine, an antihistamine. It usually has a relaxing effect that makes you feel drowsy, but it may cause some grogginess the next day. Some popular OTC sleep aids also include pain relievers, which you may not need to take for insomnia or sleep problems.

Although over-the-counter sleep medications are available without prescription and are generally considered safe, you should check with the pharmacist about any potential side effects or adverse drug interactions with other drugs you are taking for other health conditions like high blood pressure.

You should be careful to take them only as directed especially if you're taking other drugs that also contain antihistamines, like cold or allergy medications. Also, antihistamines can cause confusion in the elderly.

"The over-the-counter stuff can work in a pinch, but it's generally not good for long-term use," says Tracey Marks, MD, psychiatrist in Atlanta and author of Master Your Sleep.

If you're having a sleep problem that lasts a few days, talk to your doctor about your concerns. You may have an underlying health problem, like a sleep disorder or depression.

Depending on the cause of your sleeping problem, he or she may prescribe a sleep medication, which is the most common treatment for insomnia.  

One group of sedative-hypnotics is called benzodiazepine agonists, which are divided into benzodiazepines or nonbenzodiazepines. Developed in the 1960s, they carry some risks of addiction. A newer class of sleep drugs, known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) medication, is thought to be less addictive.

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