For people who struggle with insomnia and other sleep problems, certain medications can be extremely beneficial. But are sleeping pills safe? Can you abuse and become addicted to them? Can you overdose on sleeping pills?
What Are Sleeping Pills?
Before we answer the question, “Can you overdose on sleeping pills?” we need to clarify what drugs we are referring to when we use this term. A wide range of substances, including prescription medications and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and herbal supplements that combat insomnia may be referred to as sleeping pills. For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on the various prescription medications that are typically used to help people sleep better. Prescription sleeping pills usually come from one of the following categories:
The three antidepressants that are most commonly prescribed to help people sleep are Amitriptyline, Doxepin, and Trazadone. These medications are marketed under the brand names Elavil, Sinequan, and Desyrel or Oleptro, respectively. These antidepressants have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as sleep aids, so their use in this manner is considered “off-label.” Please note that this does not mean that doctors who prescribe antidepressants to help people sleep are violating the law. Using prescription medications for off-label purposes is both legal and common in the United States.
Benzodiazepines (benzos) are often prescribed to treat people who have anxiety disorders. However, the calming and sedating effects of these drugs also makes them beneficial for people who have been struggling with insomnia or other sleep problems.
Benzos that are commonly prescribed as sleeping pills include lorazepam (which is sold under the brand name Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and diazepam (Valium).
Z-drugs are a somewhat informal category of substances that are often referred to as sedative-hypnotics or tranquilizers. This category got its name because the medications it contains all have the letter “z” in their generic name.
The list of commonly Z-drugs includes zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), zopiclone (Imovane), and zaleplon (Sonata). These drugs, which are approved only for the treatment of insomnia, were introduced in the 1990s.
Can You Become Addicted to Sleeping Pills?
Virtually every prescription medication has a risk for abuse and addiction. In the case of sleeping pills, the likelihood of becoming addicted depends on which type of medication you have been taking, as well as the amount and frequency of your use.
Addiction is characterized by a loss of control. When a person becomes addicted to a substance, they may be unable to regulate how much they use or how often they use it. Two classic symptoms of addiction are tolerance and withdrawal:
- Tolerance means that, as the person’s body adapts to the drug, the person will need to use more of it to experience the effects that they were previously able to attain via smaller doses.
- Withdrawal refers to distressing physical and psychological symptoms that can occur when a person stops using a substance that they have become dependent on.
All three of the types of sleeping pills that we discussed in the previous section (antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and Z-drugs) have addictive properties.
Benzo addiction is the most common of the three, likely because benzos are abused for recreational purposes more often than antidepressants and Z-drugs are. When Z-drugs were introduced in the 1990s, they were originally marketed as a safe, non-addictive alternative to benzos. Unfortunately, these initial claims proved to be untrue.
It is important to understand that the risk of becoming addicted to sleeping pills is greatest among people who abuse them, either to self-medicate or to achieve a recreational high. If you use sleeping pills as directed by your doctor, you have a much lower risk of addiction.
Can You Overdose on Sleeping Pills?
We have already addressed two important questions about the potential dangers of sleeping pills:
- Can you abuse sleeping pills? Yes.
- Can you become addicted to sleeping pills? Yes.
That leaves us with one final question: Can you overdose on sleeping pills?
Sadly, the answer to this question is also yes.
Overdose occurs when a person’s drug use exceeds their body’s ability to safely metabolize the substance. Depending on which type of prescription sleeping pill a person has been abusing and how much they have taken, an overdose can be fatal.
Here are potential overdose symptoms for the three types of prescription sleeping pills we have been discussing in this article:
- Antidepressants – A person who has overdosed on an antidepressant may experience extreme drowsiness, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, headaches, and disorientation. In more severe cases, antidepressant overdose can cause elevated heart rate, low blood pressure, slow or shallow breathing, seizure, and coma.
- Benzodiazepines – Benzo overdose can involve symptoms such as fatigue, agitation, anxiety, disorientation, dizziness or lightheadedness, slurred speech, impaired coordination, tremors, and hallucinations. It may also lead to shallow breathing, oxygen deprivation, and loss of consciousness.
- Z-drugs – People who overdose on Z-drugs may suffer from nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, powerful headaches, slow or shallow breathing, and loss of consciousness. Deaths due to Z-drug overdoses seem to be less common than overdose deaths that benzodiazepines and antidepressants, but they can occur.
If a person uses a sleeping pill in combination with alcohol or other drugs, their risk for overdose and other serious negative effects can increase significantly.
Begin Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment in Atlanta, GA
If you have been abusing prescription sleeping pills or any other type of prescription medication, Peachtree Recovery Solutions can help. At our prescription drug addiction treatment center in Atlanta, Georgia, you can receive personalized treatment and compassionate support from a team of skilled professionals. Give us a call or visit our admissions page today to learn how we can help.