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What Are the Side Effects of Over-the-Counter Sleeping Medications?


Updated October 06, 2008

Question: What Are the Side Effects of Over-the-Counter Sleeping Medications?

A question from a reader: I’ve been having trouble sleeping and I don’t want to take a prescription drug because I’m worried about side effects. What are the side effects of over-the-counter sleeping medications?


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved over-the-counter (OTC) sleep medications to help relieve occasional sleeplessness in people ages 12 and older.

Most OTC products sold as nighttime sleep aids contain an antihistamine, such as doxylamine (including brand names Nighttime Sleep Aid, Unisom Sleeptabs) or diphenhydramine (including brand names Benadryl, Compoz, Nytol and Sominex). Antihistamines are used to treat the symptoms of allergies; however, they cause drowsiness and are used to help people sleep.

Before making a decision about which OTC preparation to use, talk to your doctor or pharmacist, especially if you are taking other medications and are concerned about drug interactions.

And once you purchase a sleep aid, make sure to read the drug label carefully. All OTC medications are required to list side effects and precautions for using the medication.

Common side effects of the antihistamines used in OTC sleep products are:

  • drowsiness the next day
  • dizziness
  • lack of coordination
  • reduced mental alertness
  • constipation
  • dry mouth and throat

Contact your healthcare provider if any of these side effects are severe, last for more than several days or give you blurred vision or difficulty urinating.

OTC sleeping medications can also cause other problems such as drug tolerance and drug dependence. To learn more about these issues and how to safely use OTC sleep aids read my article: Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids: What You Need to Know.

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