Can You Die from Sleeping Pills?

Last Updated on October 4, 2023

woman taking sleeping pills

Approximately 9 million Americans (4 percent of adults in the U.S.) use prescription sleep aids to get a good night’s rest.1 But are these drugs safe?

In 2019, following 20 reported deaths and 46 serious injuries caused by these drugs, the FDA mandated that certain sleep aid drugs include black-box warnings, which call attention to the serious risks of taking these drugs. These black-box warnings are now found on the packaging for eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), and zolpidem (Ambien). However, that may not keep some people from abusing these sedatives.

Can You Die from Sleeping Pills?
A sleeping pill overdose can kill you. In fact, 11,537 drug overdose deaths were caused by benzodiazepines in 2017.2 One study published in the British Medical Journal also found that people taking hypnotic sleeping pills like Ambien, Sonata, Doral, Halcion, Lunesta, Valium, Ativan, and Librium (among several others) had a four times greater risk of death and had a more than 35 percent increase in risk of cancer than people who did not.3

What Are Sleeping Pills?

Sleeping pills are medications that are used to alleviate symptoms such as insomnia, nighttime restlessness, depression, or anxiety. They work by interacting with certain neurotransmitters in the brain and suppressing the nervous system. Some sleeping pills are highly addictive and can cause tolerance and dependence.4

Sedative-hypnotic sleeping pills are not recommended for long-term use, as they can actually start to hinder sleep if they are used regularly for an extended period of time or cause withdrawal if a person suddenly tries to stop using them.

Sleeping pills can also cause negative side effects, even if they are used as directed. For example, sleeping pills can sometimes make people feel tired, drowsy, or groggy during the day. They can also cause:

  • Confusion
  • Memory problems
  • Balance problems
  • Performing certain activities while sleeping (driving, walking, eating, etc.)
  • Withdrawal symptoms5

Although sleeping pills are an effective short-term solution to get a good night’s sleep, they can cause serious health problems, hinder sleep, or lead to addiction if they are used on a long-term basis.

List of Sleep Aid Drugs

Prescription Sleep Aid DrugsOver-the-Counter Sleep Aid Drugs
  • Ambien/Ambien CR
  • amitriptyline
  • amobarbital
  • Ativan
  • Belsomra
  • butabarbital
  • chloral hydrate
  • clonazepam
  • Dalmane
  • Doral
  • doxepin
  • Edluar
  • estazolam
  • Eszopiclone
  • flurazepam
  • gabapentin
  • Halcion
  • Hetlioz
  • Intermezzo
  • lorazepam
  • Lunesta
  • mirtazapine
  • trazodone
  • triazolam
  • zaleplon
  • zolpidem
  • Zolpimist
  • Advil PM
  • Aleve PM
  • aspirin/diphenhydramine
  • Bayer PM
  • diphenhydramine/ibuprofen
  • diphenhydramine/magnesium salicylate
  • diphenhydramine/naproxen
  • Doans PM
  • Ibuprofen PM
  • Motrin PM

Statistics on Sleeping Pills

Sleeping pills may not seem like they’re dangerous, and although they can be a great short-term solution, the statistics listed below illustrate the serious risks of using them long-term or misusing them in any way.

  • People who take 1-18 sleeping pills annually are 3.5 times more likely to die within a two-and-a-half year follow-up period. The likelihood of death increases with the number of sleeping pills taken annually.6
  • One study found that people who were prescribed the most hypnotic sleeping pills were 35 percent more likely than people who didn’t use them to develop a new cancer after about 2.5 years of follow-up.3
  • One in six people with a diagnosed sleep disorder and one in eight people who report having trouble sleeping use sleep aids.7
  • According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey:
    • The percentage of adults using a prescription sleep aid drug increased with age and education. More adult women (5 percent) used prescription sleep aids than adult men (3.1 percent).8
    • Non-Hispanic white adults were more likely to use sleep aids (4.7 percent) than non-Hispanic black (2.5 percent) and Mexican-American (2 percent) adults.8
    • Prescription sleep aid use varied by sleep duration and was highest among adults who sleep less than 5 hours or sleep 9 or more hours a night.8
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Sleeping Pill Overdose

Taking too many sleeping pills at once or taking sleeping pills and alcohol simultaneously can cause a deadly overdose. Many sleeping pill overdose deaths may be accidental, but some are intentional suicides. If a person becomes severely depressed, he or she may abuse sleeping pills with other drugs to intentionally overdose.

In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide and 13.9 percent of those deaths were caused by poisoning.9 Although an overdose can occur with a high dose of sleeping pills, a deadly overdose caused by sleeping pills is much more common when alcohol is involved.

Alternatively, not all sleeping pill overdoses result in death. Many drug overdoses cause brain damage or physical injury that can leave a person dealing with painful side effects for hours or indefinitely. If you think someone is overdosing on sleeping pills, it’s important to seek medical help immediately.

What are the common signs of a sleeping pill overdose?

  • Extreme lethargy
  • Breathing problems
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Clumsiness/drunk-like behavior

What are the side effects of combining sleeping pills and alcohol?

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness/disorientation
  • Memory problems
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Impaired motor control
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Unusual behavior
  • High risk of overdose
  • Death10

Although the sleeping pills prescribed today are safer than some of the ones previously prescribed in the past, there is still a risk of overdose with very high doses of drugs like Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta, among others.

Sleeping Pill Addiction, Withdrawal, and Detox

Misusing sleeping pills or using them on a long-term basis can increase a person’s risk for sleeping pill addiction. If someone becomes addicted, he or she may have cravings for sleeping pills, be unable to ever fall asleep without them, take larger or more frequent doses than necessary, or keep taking sleeping pills despite the negative consequences.

Once a person becomes addicted to sleeping pills, he or she may experience moderate or severe withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit or cut back. Sleeping pill withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Shakiness
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Overactive reflexes
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased body temperature/sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Cravings
  • Seizures11

Quitting sleeping pills cold turkey can be dangerous, but a medical detox program can provide 24/7 medical treatment and clinical care for people who are going through withdrawal. Depending on the severity of a person’s sleeping pill addiction, medical detox may be necessary to ensure their physical comfort and safety during withdrawal.

What Are Effective Alternatives to Sleeping Pills?

People often turn to sleeping pills because they are struggling with insomnia and are suffering physically and psychologically from a severe lack of sleep. Doctors tend to prescribe sleeping pills to people who have severe sleeping disorders, but for many others with less severe sleeping problems, there are alternative treatment methods that are effective. Here are some healthy sleep tips from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine that may reduce or eliminate your need for sleeping pills:

  • Practice good sleep hygiene (avoiding stimulants before bed, establish a bedtime routine, get outside during the day, exercise regularly, create a comfortable sleep environment, etc.)12
  • Practice meditation
  • Attend individual counseling/therapy
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule
  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Cut back on caffeine
  • Engage in relaxing activities before bedtime
  • Practice stress management techniques
  • Take a warm bath or shower before bed
  • Avoid screen time within an hour of your bedtime13

Overcome Your Addiction to Sleeping Pills

If you are already addicted to sleeping pills, it’s not too late to change your life. You can get sober, experience a full recovery, and get a good night’s rest again. Call (512) 605-2955 to speak with an admissions representative at Nova Recovery Center today. We can provide the right support and treatment you need to overcome your sleeping pill addiction.



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