Although the drugs are called “non–habit forming,” they can cause a dependency that’s psychological and not necessarily physical, according to Consumer Reports.
If people take over-the-counter sleep drugs for too long, it can be risky.
Nearly one in five respondents, 18 percent, who said they took an OTC sleep aid within the past year, took it on a daily basis, Consumer Reports found in a survey. Forty-one percent of people who have taken OTC sleep aids in the past year said they used these medications for a year or longer.
“More people turn to over-the-counter sleep drugs than prescription meds for help with their insomnia,” said Lisa Gill, deputy content editor of Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs. “But given these survey findings, we can see consumers are taking them for far too long, which can be risky.”
Facts about the risks
One of the serious concerns about the long-term use of antihistamines, including diphenhydramine, is an increased risk of the possibility of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
“Our new report shows that for people with chronic insomnia, working with a cognitive behavioral therapist is a much better and safer first step than medication,” said Gill.
Diphenhydramine, found in many nighttime sleep aids, may cause complications such as constipation, confusion, dizziness, and next-day drowsiness. It can put consumers at increased risk for impaired balance, coordination, and driving performance the day after the drug is used.
Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs suggests if you take an OTC insomnia medication, do it for only a few days at a time at the lowest recommended dose. And never take extra pills or mix the medication with other sleep drugs. If your insomnia doesn’t go away after two weeks, see a doctor.
For consumers struggling with chronic insomnia, Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs recommends cognitive behavior therapy instead of sleeping pills as a first choice for treatment.
But, if a sleep aid is chosen, Consumer Reports recommends several steps consumers can take to be safe.
Consumers with sleep troubles may think the easy solution is to take one of the sleep drugs available over-the-counter such as Advil PM, Nytol, Simply Sleep, Sominex, Tylenol PM, Unisom SleepMinis, or ZzzQuil, from the makers of Nyquil.
Of concern is the drug diphenhydramine, used to treat seasonal allergies, which can create a psychological dependency, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows manufacturers to claim that OTC drugs are non-habit forming.
The claim “non-habit forming” has been allowed since before the 1962 passage of legislation requiring drugs to be evaluated for safety, quality, and effectiveness before being marketed. At the time of their approval as OTC sleep aids, there wasn’t enough evidence to show the drugs caused dependence, so the term remains on packages of OTC sleep medications.
Based on a review of medical evidence, for those whose chronic insomnia isn’t easily fixed, Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs recommends the following:
- Try cognitive behavior therapy instead of sleeping pills as a first choice treatment. Through it, you work with a licensed sleep therapist, learning about habits and attitudes that may compromise your sleep. Studies suggest that cognitive behavior therapy helps 70 to 80 percent of people with chronic insomnia, and effects are long lasting, with few – if any –downsides.
- For those who still decide to take insomnia drugs, they should take them for only a few days at a time, at the lowest possible dose.
- Never drink alcohol while taking insomnia drugs, and don’t take an extra pill to get back to sleep. Doing either of these things can worsen the drug’s side effects.
- Pay close attention to sleeping pill labels and avoid mixing them with other sleep drugs or supplements, including OTC nighttime pain relievers and antihistamines.
- Always use caution when driving the day after you take an insomnia drug because you might still be drowsy.