OTC Sleeping Aids: Precautions & Considerations

by Ashley Grano

If tossing and turning has become a regular occurrence at night, you’re not alone. Nearly 60 percent of adults experience difficulty sleeping a few nights a week or more, as reported by the National Sleep Foundation. Further, an estimated 50-70 million adults suffer from a sleep or wakefulness disorder, according to the CDC. Even just a night or two of disrupted sleep can wreak havoc on mood, cognitive performance, and other undesirable side effects – all of which can cause many people to become desperate for a solution. While most are aware of the potential dangers and risk of addiction of prescription sleep aids, there is a misconception that OTC sleep aids are a safer alternative.

Precautions and considerations for OTC sleep aids

While there are certainly individual cases where occasional OTC sleep aids can be useful and safe when used correctly, they should still be regarded as a medicine. Further, although OTC sleep aids may be readily available at the corner drug store or online without a doctor’s approval, it is important to consider potential risks and side effects. According to WebMD, some of the possible pitfalls of OTC sleep aids include:

  • High risk for tolerance. Since the majority of OTC sleep aids utilize antihistamines as the main active ingredient for sedation, their effectiveness is short-lived. As a result, more and more of the medication is needed to achieve the same results. Long-term data of OTC sleep aid use is also quite limited, reports Harvard Health, further emphasizing that OTC sleep aids are not intended to be used as a dependent substance for sleep.

  • Next-day grogginess. The sedating effects of OTC sleep aids often are synonymous with grogginess the following day after use, reports WebMD. This can be especially dangerous in elderly users, leading to compromised cognitive functioning, says Geriatric Medicine. In turn, this can lead to a higher risk of falls and injuries. Even in younger users, grogginess can impair performance and cause feelings akin to a “hangover”.

  • Interaction with other medications. Always consult with a pharmacist prior to taking any OTC sleep aids to ensure safety with current prescription medications. In addition, be mindful of OTC sleep aids and other OTC medicines, like pain, cold, or allergy medications, as many aids contain a combination of different medicines which could lead to overdose or other undesirable side effects and interactions, advises WebMD.

  • Additional safety issues. Some OTC medicines contain ingredients like diphenhydramine and doxylamine, which aren't recommended for people who have health conditions such as glaucoma, asthma, COPD, sleep apnea, severe liver disease, digestive system obstruction, or urinary retention issues due to the increased risk of interaction, reports the Mayo Clinic. OTC sleep aids should also be avoided by pregnant or breast-feeding women, as well as adults over 75 due to reported elevated risk of stroke and dementia.

  • Natural sleep aids aren’t always risk-free. Popular OTC dietary supplements like Valerian root and Melatonin are commonly used to help promote sleep, but may also come with potential side effects in sensitive individuals. Valerian for example may cause dizziness, heart disturbances, stomach issues, daytime drowsiness, headache, or ironically even sleeplessness, according to the Mayo Clinic. Melatonin can cause similar side effects, as well as short-term feelings of depression, irritability, nausea, and diarrhea, says WebMD.

Natural ways to cope with sleep issues

While insomnia and sleep issues are common, a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine reported promising news. Of the roughly 25 percent of Americans who experience acute insomnia annually, the vast majority (about 75 percent) eventually resumed normal sleep patterns. The study investigated the causations of poor sleep patterns and found factors such as stress, illness, and certain medications to be responsible for most cases of temporary sleep issues. With that knowledge, tackling lifestyle causes of sleep problems is a good first step. Of course, it is recommended to consult with an expert to rule out underlying health conditions which may be interfering with sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation suggests taking a holistic approach to resolving sleep issues, including the use of meditation and exercise to decrease stress. Other treatment may include cognitive behavioral therapy. Chamomile tea and lavender essential oil may also be helpful bedtime remedies to soothe the mind and body. Establishing healthy sleep hygiene is also important, which may include engaging in a relaxing bedtime routine with activities like reading or taking a warm bath. Other tips include avoiding naps as well as caffeine late in the day, both which can be disruptive to normal sleep patterns.
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