Note: if you are concerned about an overdose, please contact poison control or immediately dial 911. Even over-the-counter sleeping pills can be dangerous in high doses.
Sleep is among the most important bodily functions. Getting adequate rest is critical for brain and organ health and performance during the day. Unfortunately, getting enough sleep isn’t always as easy as it sounds. In the United States, between 50 million and 70 million adults live with sleep disorders, and around four percent take prescription medications to manage sleep.
For those who need assistance getting to sleep, this kind of medication can be life-changing. However, it’s important to understand the risks. Most popular prescription sleeping pills, like Ambien and Lunesta, can cause overdose when taken to excess. With a new prescription, it’s important to know what a lethal dose of sleeping pills looks like and how to avoid overdosing.
What Are Sleeping Pills?
Sleeping pills are any medications prescribed for the purpose of inducing sleep. Some medications aid sleep as a primary purpose, while others may be more commonly prescribed for other conditions. Popular sleep aids include:
- Anti-Parkinsonian drugs: These dopamine agonists can calm muscle movement, benefiting individuals with insomnia, restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder.
- Benzodiazepines: Also called hypnotics, benzos can be used to treat parasomnias and short-term insomnia.
- Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics: This popular class of sleeping pill includes Ambien and Lunesta, two of the most popular choices for treating insomnia.
- Anticonvulsants: While less common, anticonvulsants can be used to treat restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder as well as nocturnal eating syndrome.
- Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications: Also less common, antidepressants that cause sleepiness or fatigue as a primary side effect may be prescribed for insomnia.
Some patients may need to try multiple drugs, or a combination of drugs, to find the right fit.
What Happens if I Overdose on Sleeping Pills?
Enough celebrities have died from taking sleeping pills mixed with other substances that the risks of overdose are well-known. (Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix are just a couple examples.) Often, when the phrase ‘overdose on sleeping pills’ is used, it is referring to a fatal overdose. While this is a very real risk due to the effects of sleeping pills, an overdose can occur any time that the effects of the medication exceed the intended effects.
Sleeping medications often include a strong sedative to induce sleep, and when taken in excess can trigger unwanted side effects. While symptoms can vary depending on the pill in use, they can include:
- Extensive lethargy and fatigue
- Clumsiness and uncontrollable muscle twitching
- Memory loss
- Abdominal pain
- Irregular breathing, including slowed or stopped breathing
When mixed with other substances, like alcohol, these effects can become more pronounced. This is especially true for respiratory issues, a phenomenon that can contribute to death from overdose.
Five Quick Tips to Prevent a Sleeping Pill Overdose
Numerous consequences can come from overdose on sleeping pills, death included. To stay safe when using these medications, follow these five tips for preventing sleeping pill overdose.
Only Take Pills as Prescribed
Most sleeping pills are safe when taken as prescribed but dangerous when taken in excess. As such, users need to follow all instructions provided by a doctor as closely as possible. If dosage information is limited to a single pill, taking a second pill during bouts of worsened insomnia is not advised. Dosages are based on many things, from symptoms to height and weight, so choosing to alter dosage without professional interference can be very dangerous.
As with most medications, the body can build up a tolerance to sleeping pills. If sleeping pills are no longer providing restful sleep, speak to a doctor about making changes. Do not change routines or take additional pills without express permission from a medical professional.
Never Mix Substances
Sleeping pill overdoses rarely come from sleeping pills alone – though it can happen – but rather the interaction between sleeping pills and other substances, like drugs and alcohol.
When taking sleeping pills, it’s important to avoid using other recreational or prescription substances without approval from a doctor. Alcohol, for example, can be particularly dangerous when mixed with sleeping pills. Just a drink or two can significantly impact how sleeping pills affect the body, so if a prescribing doctor says “don’t drink,” abstinence is critical. Some pills allow for moderate alcohol use but many do not, so be sure to review interactions and potential risk factors before starting any new sleeping medication.
Tell Doctors About Any Side Effects
Not all sleeping pills will work the same for all people. Some may have a positive experience and see great improvement in sleeping habits, while others may find side effects, like fatigue during the day or sleepwalking, to be untenable.
If any pill triggers strange side effects or isn’t working as anticipated, ths issue should be addressed with a medical professional. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to use other OTC or prescription medications to manage side effects without a doctor’s approval. Drug interactions can be very dangerous, and without a solid understanding of both pharmacology and biology, it can be far too easy to take a deadly cocktail of medications. Seek a doctor’s approval for every new medication, even if risk of interaction seems minor.
Make Other Lifestyle Adjustments
A good night’s sleep is about more than taking pills; lifestyle can play a significant role. When lifestyle aligns better with healthy sleep, those with sleep disorders may be less tempted to overload on sleeping pills.
In addition to taking medicine, make healthy habits a priority. Set a specific nightly bedtime and work to always be in bed by then. Turn off screens and other sources of blue light at least 30 minutes before bed. If temperature regulation is an issue, showering before bed, investing in a cooling blanket or using air conditioning or fans can help, too. When an environment is conducive to sleep, it may be easier to catch some Zs without feeling a need to resort to additional sleeping medication.
Try Natural Sleep Aids
Prescription sleeping aids help millions of Americans get a better night sleep but are not the only option. There are a number of natural products on the market and restorative processes that may be effective in conjunction with sleeping pills. These can include:
- Calming aromatherapy, like lavender oil
- Hot tea or milk
- Meditation or sleep stories
When effective alternative measures are in use that won’t interact with sleeping pills, users may be less tempted to try a dangerous quantity of prescription medication simply to get to sleep.
Sleeping medication provides relief and rest for millions of Americans, but this popular form of prescription drug isn’t without risk. Overdose on sleeping pills, death included, is a distinct possibility, resulting in a tragic end to a quest for sleep.
Abuse of sleeping medication can be a big and potentially fatal challenge, particularly when users take a lethal dose of sleeping pills. If abusive behaviors are challenging overall wellness, getting help may be necessary. Contact FHE Health today to learn more about support for drug addiction and dependence.