Millions of Americans reach for sleeping pills whenever they have difficulty in falling and staying asleep through the night, as is the case for insomnia. While sleeping pills have their merits, these should also be used with care and caution, especially over the long-term period, because of the wide range of side effects that occurs with misuse and abuse.
This early, we want to emphasize the importance of ensuring a sleep-friendly bedroom, of getting a comfortable and supportive bed like a Serta mattress, and of adopting healthy sleep and lifestyle habits as the first line of treatment for sleep-related issues. Sleeping pills should only be an adjunct treatment, if not the last resort, and should only be used on a short-term basis.
But what are sleeping pills? Most sleeping pills are sedative hypnotics, a specific class of drugs used in inducing and/or maintaining sleep, and these include benzodiazepines and barbiturates. The benzodiazepines include well-known brands like Valium, Xanax, and Ativan, which are also anti-anxiety medications, while the barbiturates cause sedation. Both types of sleeping pills, however, can be addictive and, in some cases, fatal in overdose.
Wide Range of Side Effects
Doctors will not prescribe sleeping pills at the first instance because, like most medications, these drugs have side effects that can offset the benefit of sleeping faster and longer. There’s also the matter of not knowing the actual side effects of a specific sleeping pill until you have tried it, not to mention that the side effects can vary widely between persons.
Your doctor will also provide information about the contraindications of certain sleeping pills if you have an underlying medical condition. If you have asthma, for example, you may experience breathing problems when taking a particular brand.
In general, prescription sleeping pills like Sonata, Halcion, and Lunesta have the following common side effects:
- Burning or tingling feeling in the hands, arms, feet, or legs
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Changes in appetite
- Dizziness or difficulty keeping balance
- Dry mouth or throat
- Daytime drowsiness
- Heartburn or gas
- Impairment in function on the next day
- Issues related to memory or attention
- Stomach tenderness or pain
- Uncontrollable shaking usually of a part of the body
- General weakness or lethargy
- Unusual dreams
Some sleeping pills can also cause parasomnias, a class of sleeping disorders where the affected person has no control over his behaviors, movements and actions either while still sleeping or partially awake. Parasomnias include sleepwalking, sleep terrors, and sleep-related eating disorder, which can cause bodily harm to the affected person and the people around him.
If you feel that the side effects of your use of sleeping pills are interfering with your normal functions during the day or these are causing parasomnia-like symptoms, you should immediately stop taking them. You must, furthermore, speak with your doctor about alternatives, especially when the sleeping pills are part of your treatment plan for an underlying medical condition (e.g., anxiety disorder).
Safety Precautions to Remember
Sleeping pills are drugs and, as such, susceptible persons will likely have allergic reactions to them. The allergic reactions can be caused either by the active ingredients or by the inactive ingredients, such as binders, coatings, and dyes.
If you’re allergic to sleeping pills, your reactions will likely include one or more of these:
- Eye issues, such as blurred vision when there were none before the use of sleeping pills
- Chest pain or shortness of breath
- Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, eyes, or throat
- Trouble in swallowing or breathing, perhaps with the feeling of your throat closing
- Hives or rashes
- Nausea or vomiting
You may even experience anaphylaxis, an acute allergic reaction considered as a medical emergency, or angioedema (i.e., severe swelling of the face). Be sure to discuss the possibility of these complex and severe side effects with your doctor so that appropriate alternatives, such as another class of sedatives, can be prescribed.
Never ever mix alcohol and sleeping pills! The combined sedative effects of these substances can result in severe impairment in breathing and, in some cases, result in death. This is also partly true for eating grapefruit and drinking grapefruit juice along with taking sleeping pills – grapefruit can cause over-sedation because it increases the amount of the drug absorbed into your bloodstream and the amount of time it stays in your body.
Most important, keep in mind that sleeping pills can be addictive! Your doctor will only recommend its use for a short time only, usually just for several weeks at most. Otherwise, you can build up tolerance to the medication when it’s used for a longer period, as is the case for benzodiazepines and benzodiazepine agonists. You can become physically and psychologically dependent on the drug, a serious side effect that will affect your ability to function well.
The bottom line: Take sleeping pills only according to your doctor’s recommendation. You may be tempted to do otherwise but remember why you took them in the first place – to sleep better and, hopefully, to enjoy life better, too.