What to Know About Over-the-Counter Sleep Medications

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on July 16, 2023
3 min read

Millions of people have trouble sleeping. In fact, about 1 in 3 adults report symptoms of insomnia. You might reach for over-the-counter (OTC) sleep medications if it happens to you. Here’s what to know if you decide to try them.

These are drugs, herbs, or supplements you can buy without a prescription. Common ones include:

Antihistamines. These include drugs such as diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate. They’re used to treat allergies and can help you sleep if symptoms make it hard to fall or stay asleep. You shouldn’t use them if you don’t have allergies.

Melatonin. Your body naturally makes this hormone to control your sleep-wake cycle. A melatonin supplement doesn’t make you sleepy like antihistamines. Instead, experts think it shifts the timing of your sleep. You might fall asleep a little faster if you take it 20 minutes to 2 hours before bed.

Valerian. This is a plant-based sleep aid that’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s commonly used to treat insomnia and anxiety. You can find it in pill or tea form. It’s not clear whether valerian really helps you sleep. Results from scientific studies are mixed.

OTC sleep medication is most helpful for acute or situational insomnia. That’s when your sleep problems only last for a short time and happen for a reason that’ll go away. They’re not a good way to manage troubled sleep that lasts for months.

Here are some examples of when OTC sleep medication might help:

  • You’re jetlagged.
  • You work the night shift.
  • You go through something stressful, such as divorce or death of a loved one.

Herbal sleep aids can cause side effects. For example, you might wake up with a headache or some drowsiness when you take melatonin. Potential side effects of valerian include:

Side effects from antihistamine-based sleep drugs are more serious and might include:

Antihistamine-based sleep aids aren’t recommended if you’re 75 or older or if you have:

Talk to your doctor if you have another issue like high blood pressure or heart problems. They can help make sure your OTC sleep medication doesn’t affect treatment for those conditions.

Supplements like melatonin and valerian are generally considered safe to use every day. But they’re not regulated by the government. So you don’t always know what’s in them.

Taking an OTC sleep aid for a long period of time isn’t recommended. That’s because you may not be treating the underlying reason for your sleep problems. And it may backfire, leading to insomnia that won’t go away.

Other tips to safely use an OTC sleep aid include:

  • Don’t drink alcohol or take another sedative at the same time.
  • Don’t drive or do anything that needs your attention.
  • Don’t plan to take a sleep aid for more than a few days.
  • Give yourself at least 8 hours to sleep.

Talk to your doctor if you have sleep problems often, especially if they don’t go away after a few months. They can help you find the right treatment to help you get a good night’s rest. You may need to make lifestyle changes, try cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or get treatment for another health condition.