Over the Counter Sleep Aids

Over the counter sleep aids are big business. In the U.S. alone, sleep-deprived people spend more than $100 million annually on non-prescription sleep medication.

Research shows that more than 10 percent of adults have used an over the counter (OTC) sleep aid during the last 12 months. 

Non-prescription sleep medicine and retail-purchased natural sleep aids can serve as a short-term 'fix' for the occasional bout of sleeplessness. Yet, these readily available sleep aids are not an ideal choice for people suffering from chronic insomnia.

Your body builds up tolerance to OTC sleep medication fairly quickly, rendering them ineffective over a short amount of time. Increasing the medication dosage can be dangerous, as it increases the chances of unpleasant and unsafe side effects.

Your body builds up tolerance to OTC sleep medication fairly quickly, rendering them ineffective over a short amount of time. Increasing the medication dosage can be dangerous, as it increases the chances of unpleasant and unsafe side effects.

How Over the Counter Sleep Aids Work

The active ingredient in retail-purchases sleep medication is usually an antihistamine, such as:

  • Diphenhydramine Hydrochloride (found in Tylenol PM, Sominex and Compoz)

  • Diphenhydramine Citrate (found in Excedrin PM)

  • Doxylamine (found in Unisom, Nighttime)

Antihistamines are designed to treat allergic reactions by blocking the brain chemical histamine and suppressing the nervous system.

The side effect of these actions is that you feel drowsy (think of what happens when you take Benadryl). Although they're generally not as effective as prescription sleep aids, an over the counter sleep aid can help you get some much-needed rest if you used occasionally and correctly.

If you're lying awake at night because you're suffering from a a heavy cold or flu, or pain from an injury or minor illness, medication such as Tylenol PM or Excedrin PM may help. These drugs contain a painkiller, as well an antihistamine.

Here are a few things you should know about OTC sleeping pills:

  • Just because you can find sleep aids at the local store without a prescription, doesn't mean that they're completely safe.

  • A store's own brand of sleep aid that contains the same type and amount of active ingredients and as a brand-name drug typically be equally effective and cheaper.

  • Non-prescription sleep aids may produce more side effects than many prescription sleep medications

  • OTC medicine can interact with other medication (and natural or herbal products) that you are taking.

  • Non-prescription products can be addictive and your body will likely build up a tolerance to them quickly. When you stop taking the drugs, you may experience drug withdrawal symptoms after long-term use.

  • Although in general OTC sleep aids will make you drowsy, for some people they can have the opposite effect causing nervousness, jitters, and anxiety.

Side Effects of OTC Sleep Aids

A variety of side effects are common, and everyone reacts differently. Some people may experience one, or several, of the following symptoms.

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea/vomiting

  • Dry mouth/nasal passages

  • Headache

  • Blurred vision

  • Constipation

  • "Grogginess" the next morning (sometimes extending throughout the day)

As mentioned earlier, these medications may also produce the opposite effect of making you jittery and keeping you up at night.

If you decide to take a over the counter sleep aids, be extra careful about driving (or undertaking any task that needs your full concentration and quick reflexes) the next day.

The grogginess that some people experience can last a while. So, it's better to be safe than sorry until you know how the medications affects you.

Some people who frequently use sleep aids may grow dependent on them. In fact, in recent years many addiction rehab programs have seen an increase in people seeking treatment for sleep aid dependency.

Most doctors suggest a maximum of four weeks for prescription medications to prevent long-term dependency and addiction.

Some people seem to be more susceptible to the side effects of OTC sleep aids than others. Older adults may experience more severe problems, as they metabolize this type of medication more quickly than others.

Moreover, sleep aids containing Diphenhydramine Citrate are more quickly absorbed by the body than others, so you may need less to make you sleepy.

Using Non-Prescription Sleep Medication Safely

The compounds in any over the counter sleep aid can interact with other medications, causing severe and/or dangerous side effects. For that reason, it's important to always talk with your doctor before taking over the counter products concurrently with other medications.

This is especially important if you are taking an MAOI or other drug to treat depression, psychiatric or emotional disorders

In addition, if you have any of the following conditions, don't use OTC sleep aids without consulting your doctor.

  • Asthma

  • Bronchitis

  • Enlarged prostate

  • Glaucoma

  • Parkinsons Disease

  • Heart problems (including arrhythmia's or angina)

  • Peptic ulcer

  • Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding

Also, you should never drink alcoholic beverages when you are using a prescription or over the counter sleep aid.

Here are additional safety concerns.

  • Take only the minimum recommended dose (as given on the packaging or recommended by your doctor)

  • Do not exceed the maximum recommended dosage

  • Don't use an OTC sleep aid for more than seven consecutive days without approval of your doctor

  • Don't mix sleep aids, either prescription or OTC, with other drugs, medications or alcohol (as mentioned previously).

  • Stop taking your medication if it causes unpleasant or recurring side effects - or interferes with your daily activities.

If you are interested in learning about the benefits of using natural sleep aids, click here

Beyond Medication:
An Added Note to Help Address Sleep Challenges

Before considering any type of medication to help you fall asleep and stay asleep, remember that your sleep environment plays a role in your ability to achieve healthy rest. Your mattress, bedding, window covering, air quality and room temperature all contribute to your ability to sleep better and wake up refreshed.

To check your air quality and ensure your heating and air conditioning system is operating effectively – and positively contributing to your ability to get a good night's sleep – you may want to contact an experienced company such as Canoga Park Heating and Air Conditioning to conduct an evaluation.

To learn about creating a sleep environment that is conducive to quality rest, click here on the links below:

What is Insomnia?
Insomnia Medications
Melatonin and Sleep
Natural Sleep Aids
Natural Cures for Insomnia
Sleep Hygiene
Sleep Disorders

› Over the Counter Sleep Aids

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Copyright 2008-2016 - Sowder Group LLC - Content and images may NOT be reproduced. 
Better-Sleep-Better-Life.com is for informational purposes and does not serve as medical/health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The site publisher/owner is not liable for your use of site information. Always consult your physician for all sleep and health concerns.


Published by Jules Sowder

Share Sleep Tips
Do you have a great tip to share with others who are struggling with sleep? What works for you might help someone else. Click here to post on our forum.

shop for tea
Mobility and Disability Resources