Over-The-Counter (OTC): Non-prescription Sleeping Pills and Aids

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Many rely on sleeping aids to fall asleep more easily at night and enjoy more restful slumber. In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about over-the-counter (OTC), non-prescription sleeping pills, and aids.

Many rely on sleeping aids to fall asleep more easily at night and enjoy more restful slumber. Some medications, like benzodiazepines and orexin receptor antagonists, require a prescription. However, other types of sleeping pills are available over the counter (OTC) and do not require a doctor’s prescription. Though these medications are helpful for treating sleep issues such as insomnia, it’s essential to exercise caution and speak with your doctor about side effects, risk factors, and other concerns before taking them.

The following information will discuss everything you need to know about over-the-counter (OTC), non-prescription sleeping pills, and aids.

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Are Sleeping Aids or Pills Right For You?

It’s 2 AM, and rather than sleeping, you’re lying awake in bed thinking about work, bills, kids, or other issues. The truth is that when you can’t fall asleep, it’s easy to grab sleeping pills for relief. However, while it may work at that moment, taking them regularly can be a signal that something is wrong.

Sometimes, it’s something small like too much television watching or caffeine before bed. But other times, it can signify an underlying psychological or medical problem. Yet, regardless of what the problem is, sleeping pills and aids are rarely the cure. At best, they provide temporary relief, but at worst, they are addictive and can make insomnia worse over time.

Now, this isn’t to say that non-prescription sleeping pills are never a good option. We’re just saying that you need to weigh the benefits and risks. Generally, sleep aids and sleeping pills are highly effective when used for short-term problems. For example, if you’re traveling across time zones and need to adjust. But when you choose to take OTC sleeping pills over long periods of time, it can lead to a high tolerance and dependence.

Side Effects and Risks of Sleeping Pills

It’s important to understand that most medications come with side effects, which will vary depending on the classification of the drug, dosage, and how long it lasts in your body.

Common side effects of sleeping aids include:

  • Next-day drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Constipation
  • Muscle Aches
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Rebound insomnia
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Unsteadiness


Yet, there are other risk factors that you should always be aware of, which include:

  • Tolerance
  • Dependence
  • Withdrawal
  • Drug interactions
  • Masking underlying medical issues

Which OTC Sleeping Pills Are Available?

Now that you understand the risks and side effects when using sleeping pills and aids, let’s discuss what options are available on the market. It’s important to mention that while these products usually come in a wide variety of brand names, they all fall into one of the four categories below.


Melatonin is a hormone that’s naturally produced within the brain’s pineal gland. When it’s daytime, the retinas can sense natural light, which tells the brain to secrete hormones such as cortisol that promote a feeling of alertness and wakefulness. As the sunlight fades, the pineal gland receives signals to secrete melatonin to make you feel relaxed and tired.

Certain factors can lead to a decrease in melatonin levels. When this occurs, many people turn to melatonin supplements for help. Available over-the-counter, this sleep aid is often prescribed or recommended to treat some conditions. This includes sleep disorders in children, circadian rhythm sleep disorder, shift work disorder, and delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. It’s also great for travelers who are suffering from jet lag.


Diphenhydramine, or its most common brand name Benadryl, is an FDA-approved antihistamine. Though most people recognize this drug marketed as Benadryl, it’s also contained in other OTC sleep aids like Nytol, ZzzQuil, Advil PM, Tylenol PM, and Excedrin PM.

Though this drug works well for sleep problems in the short term, some studies have found that an alarming amount of older adults use diphenhydramine for self-care or insomnia treatment. This is primarily due to the fact that older people are more prone to sleeping problems because of health conditions like diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and heart disease. However, taking this drug daily is especially problematic for these folks because as you age, your metabolism slows. In other words, the medication’s half-life is extended, so effects are prolonged, which can lead to a residual sedative effect when taken in the evening.

It’s important to understand that when taking this medication, it can leave you feeling tired the next day and cause psychomotor impairments. In fact, the FDA warns that high doses of diphenhydramine can cause heart attack, seizures, coma, and even death. Thus, young adults and teenagers should also use caution with this sleeping aid.


Doxylamine succinate is also an antihistamine known to elicit sedative effects. This drug is an excellent option for the short-term treatment of insomnia and can be added to decongestants to alleviate specific cold symptoms. Doxylamine is more widely recognized under brand names such as Medi-Sleep, Good Sense Sleep Aid, and Unisom Sleep Tabs.

Please note that if your symptoms or insomnia persist for more than two weeks, you should contact your doctor about other prescription options. Much like diphenhydramine, studies have found that seniors often chronically take these medications, which can lead to adverse effects – especially if the person also consumes alcohol daily.


Valerian, or valerian root, is an herb that’s often found in mild sedatives used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Though researchers don’t quite understand the functionality of this herb, it’s believed to interact with serotonin, GABA, and adenosine receptors. Since valerian is marketed and sold as a dietary supplement, it’s not subjected to the same FDA-level approval as other OTC sleeping pills. Hence, the composition of valerian root sleep aids will vary by brand.

Just keep in mind that valerian, when taken in high doses at nighttime, can lead to morning sleepiness. However, the standard amount of 600 mg has not been found to negatively impact alertness, concentration, or reaction time. It’s vital to note that valerian’s effects on infants and unborn fetuses are unclear, so pregnant women and nursing mothers should not take this medication unless instructed by their doctor. The same is true for kids younger than three.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, over-the-counter (OTC), non-prescription sleeping pills and aids are great when used as a short-term treatment for insomnia and other sleep-related problems. However, when such medications are used chronically, they can lead to adverse effects. So, it’s always best to speak with your healthcare provider when seeking relief from insomnia and other sleep problems.


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