Over-The-Counter Sleep Aids

For some people, the occasional restless night or two is not serious enough to go to the doctor but can be disruptive enough to need some medical assistance. There are a number of different OTC sleep aids that can be taken to help you sleep, overcome insomnia and are convenient to get, a doctor’s prescription is not necessary.

For most people, they are perfectly safe if used correctly. However, if you have any serious mental, physical or emotional conditions that you are already being treated for, it is strongly advised that you seek your doctor’s advice before you take an OTC sleeping pill of any kind.

Sleep aids that are available over the counter can be effective in treating transient or short term insomnia; however, they may become less effective if used for a period of 10 – 14 days or more.

OTC Sleep Aid Effectiveness

Depending on the person, OTC sleep aids usually have a time to effectiveness (onset action) of 15-30 minutes and a half life (how long it takes to lose half of its effectiveness) of 3-12 hours. While the time to onset action varies only a little, the half life time variability shows why some people who metabolize medicine more slowly will still feel the sedative effects of the sleep aid the next day.


Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine type drug typically used to treat allergic reactions in children and to treat motion sickness. Because it also has a sedating effect, is often used in a number of OTC sleep aids. These drugs include:

  • Sominex
  • Benadryl
  • Tylenol PM

Some doctors have expressed concern about the overuse of Tylenol PM for purely sleep related reasons as it also has pain relieving ingredients which if taken in large quantities can be toxic to the liver and could potentially mask an underlying cause of the sleeping difficulty.


The doxylamine family is another class of antihistamine drugs typically used to treat allergies. Unisom is one of the most commonly known sleep aids in this class of over-the-counter drugs.

Generic OTC Sleep Aids

There are several no-name brands of these drugs that may be sold under the name of your pharmacy or other brand that are made with similar ingredients. These may be more affordable than the brand names; however, make sure that you read the label carefully to make sure that you are not only buying items that are lower cost but have the correct active ingredients and are just as safe as the name brand.

Possible Side Effects of OTC Sleeping Pills

Any kind of drug, whether it is over the counter or prescribed by a doctor can have side effects, some mild and some potentially dangerous. As with any medication, it is important to watch for any signs of allergic reaction when taking them, especially for the first few doses. No OTC sleep aid should be used for more than short term use. Common side effects of both of these classes of over the counter sleeping pills include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

When children are given these types of medications, in some cases they may become overly excitable and nervous. With older people, these drugs may produce excessive calm, beyond the intended effect.

Because they are readily available over the counter, it might be tempting to use these sleep aids for longer periods of time than is recommended and instead of seeing a doctor. Insomnia and other sleep disorders that last for an extended period could indicate a more serious condition may require prescription sleep medicine and should be evaluated by your doctor.

Essential further reading:

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