5 On Your Side

Despite FDA approval, sleep aids come with dependency risks

Posted March 23

Over-the-counter sleep aids might help people hit the hay, but they can also come with the risk of addiction.

Many sleep aids people can get at the store are labeled "non-habit forming," but there's still a risk.

For years, Tara Matthews has battled on and off with chronic insomnia. To help get to sleep, she relied on over-the-counter sleep aids.

"That was just the way I coped and made sure I got sleep," Matthews said.

What she didn't know is many sleep aids contain diphenhydramine and doxylamine—antihistamines that can make you sleepy.

"Although these ingredients are not physically addictive, there can be a risk of psychological dependency," said Consumer Reports' Lisa Gill.

A Consumer Reports survey found 20 percent of people have taken over-the-counter sleep medication within a year, and almost 1 in 5 people took them daily.

The survey also found 41 percent of respondents said they took sleep aids for a year or longer.

When approved as over-the-counter sleep aids, there was not enough evidence to show the drugs caused dependence, so the label "non-habit forming" still remains. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says using a sleep aid for two weeks or less at the labeled dose makes it "very unlikely that the consumer will become dependent on it."

Matthews isn't convinced, though. She said she would have looked for alternatives sooner.

The medication comes with warnings that include serious side effects, such as next-day drowsiness, dizziness and confusion.

Also, frequent use can increase the risk of dementia and even Alzheimer's disease.

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