Sleeping Drugs

Drugs that reduce nerve cell activity in the brain and are used to treat insomnia

Common drugs

    Other sleeping drugs

  • Chloral hydrate

  • Zaleplon

  • Zolpidem

  • Zopiclone

Sleeping drugs may be prescribed to reestablish sleep patterns after a period of insomnia or when insomnia is the result of a stressful event, such as a death in the family. They may also be used if you need to adjust your sleep patterns to suit your work. However, sleeping drugs do not treat the cause of insomnia, which may be depression or anxiety (see Anxiety disorders). You should not drink alcohol when taking sleeping drugs because the sedative effect is enhanced.

Sleeping drugs should always be taken in the smallest effective dose for the shortest period of time. In general, they should be used for no longer than 3 weeks, and preferably for no longer than 1 week and not every night.

What are the types?

Many sleeping drugs belong to a group of drugs called benzodiazepines, which are also used to treat anxiety disorders. Over-the-counter remedies containing an antihistamine are also available to treat insomnia. If insomnia is caused by depression, your doctor may prescribe antidepressant drugs to relieve the symptoms of depression, including insomnia. Barbiturates are no longer recommended for treating sleeping problems as they may cause serious side effects and dependence.


These drugs reduce the level of activity in the brain, causing drowsiness. They are usually used only to treat insomnia that is severe or disabling and, if your doctor does prescribe a benzodiazepine, you will usually have only a limited supply and be advised not to take the drug every night. This is because prolonged use may result in dependence and tolerance, in which progressively larger doses of the drug are needed to produce the same effect. When you take the drug, side effects such as confusion, dizziness, and poor coordination may develop even between doses. If you are elderly, you should take particular care because these drugs can increase the risk of falling. You may also experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking benzodiazepines, including a recurrence of insomnia and increased dreaming, restlessness, and anxiety. Reducing the dose gradually can minimize withdrawal symptoms.


Some sleep preparations containing an antihistamine may be purchased over the counter. They do not cause dependence and have only a few minor side effects, but you should not take any of them for longer than a few days without first consulting your doctor. Antihistamines sometimes cause a dry mouth and blurred vision.

Other sleeping drugs

Zaleplon, zolpidem, and zopiclone reduce electrical activity in the brain, so that falling asleep is easier. Their effects are brief and they are less likely to cause dependence, but they are not recommended for long-term use.

Chloral hydrate is now used only if other sleeping drugs prove unsuccessful. Side effects include stomach upsets and nausea.


Sleeping drugs can affect your ability to drive or to operate machinery; these effects may persist the following day.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

Back to top