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  • Over the counter sleep aids can be purchased without a prescription at any drugstore and are moderately effective as far as treating insomnia.
  • If taken at the recommended doses, these medications are usually non-addictive and do not cause dependence.
  • A wide variety of over the counter (OTC) sleep aids is available, but almost all of them are based on the antihistaminic Diphenhydramine (the same substance found in Benadryl), or other antihistaminic agents.
  • Antihistaminic medications are used primarily to treat allergy symptoms, but it is a well-known fact that they also have sedative effects. This constitutes the basis for using them as over-the-counter sleep aids.
  • The onset of sedative (hypnotic) effects usually occurs in 15-30 minutes after oral administration, but in certain individuals may be delayed up to 1 hour. Peak effects occur at 2-4 hours, and the total duration of action is usually 6-8 hours.


Here are a few over the counter sleep aids for your consideration:

  • Unisom (actually there are 2 products marketed under this name:
    1. Unisom tablets - containing Diphenhydramine HCl 50 mg
    2. Unisom gelcaps - containing Doxylamine Succinate 25 mg)
  • Sominex (Diphenhydramine HCl) - comes in 25 and 50 mg
  • Nytol (Diphenhydramine HCl) - comes in 25 mg and 50 mg
  • Tylenol PM (Tylenol 500 mg / Diphenhydramine 25 mg)
  • Advil PM (Advil 200 mg, Diphenhydramine 25 mg)
  • Benadryl (Diphenhydramine 25 or 50 mg)

Side Effects:

The side effects of over the counter sleep aids are usually mild and well-tolerated by most individuals. Still, they may occasionally interfere with normal function, so caution is recommended especially when at the onset of treatment. Seniors may be more seriously affected than younger adults, so increased caution is recommended. A lower dose may be advisable in these cases, at least in the beginning until it becomes clear how the organism reacts to the medication.

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Side effects of over the counter sleep aids include:
  • drowsiness
  • dizziness
  • impaired task performance
  • difficulty concentrating
  • dry mouth and throat
  • blurred vision
  • worsening of narrow angle glaucoma
  • confusion and disorientation in elders
  • urinary retention
  • constipation

If used in excessive doses and/or over extended periods of time, over the counter sleep aids carry a small to moderate risk of developing tolerance (which means higher doses are necessary in order to achieve the desired effects), and/or dependence (which means that upon sudden discontinuation of treatment, withdrawal symptoms may occur - including agitation, irritability, and rebound insomnia).


Return from "Over the Counter Sleep Aids" to "Sleep Facts"








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