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Sleeping Pill Overdose

Sleeping pills are temporary solutions and should be used short-term and under professional supervision. Misuse or overuse can lead to dependency, tolerance, and even overdose. Learn how to stay safe and what to do if you experience an overdose.

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Sleeping Pill Addiction Recap

Millions worldwide, including 50 to 70 million Americans, use sleeping pills to manage sleep disorders like insomnia.

These pills, such as the popular brands Ambien, Lunesta, and Rozerem, enhance the brain’s gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), promoting sleep. They help users fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and improve sleep quality, usually acting within 30 minutes and lasting for several hours. Unfortunately, many people develop a dependence or addiction to sleeping pills. In some of these cases, it can lead to overdose and death.

Can You Overdose on Sleeping Pills?

While sleeping pills are designed to aid sleep and are generally safe when prescribed, it is possible to overdose on these medications. Overdose can occur when an individual takes more than the recommended dose or when sleeping pills are combined with other substances like alcohol or opioids, which can amplify their effects.

One crucial factor to understand is that all sleeping pills are central nervous system depressants, which means they work by slowing down your brain’s activity. While slowing the brain’s activity can help induce sleep, it can also lead to serious health complications if too much medication is taken.

An overdose of sleeping pills can lead to a deep state of sedation. In severe cases, it can depress the nervous system to the point where critical functions—like breathing—slow down dangerously or even stop. These effects are why taking too much of a sleeping pill, or taking it in combination with other central nervous system depressants, can be life-threatening.

Remember, not just the classically prescribed sleeping pills can pose a risk. Over-the-counter sleep aids, often considered safer, can also lead to an overdose if taken in large quantities or misused.

It’s essential to take sleeping pills only as directed by a healthcare provider. If you or someone else may have overdosed on sleeping pills, seeking emergency medical attention is crucial. The following section will discuss the signs and symptoms of a sleeping pill overdose.

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Dangerous Drug Interactions with Sleeping Pills

Alcohol: Combining sleeping pills with alcohol can result in extreme drowsiness, breathing problems, and potentially fatal overdoses. Both substances can suppress the body’s natural drive to breathe and can cause memory problems.

Opioids: Combining sleeping pills with opioids can exacerbate the sedative effects of both substances, potentially leading to life-threatening breathing problems. This combination can also increase confusion, dizziness, and potential overdoses.

Benzodiazepines: Using sleeping pills with other sedatives like benzodiazepines can amplify the sedative effects of both substances, leading to excessive drowsiness, slowed or difficult breathing, coma, or even death.

Antihistamines: Some over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines, which can interact with prescription sleeping pills to increase sedative effects. This can lead to excessive sleepiness, dizziness, and coordination problems.

Other Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants: Combining sleeping pills with other CNS depressants (like some antipsychotics, antidepressants, or antiepileptic drugs) can increase the risk of slowed or difficult breathing, sedation and potentially fatal overdoses.

Certain Herbal Supplements: Some herbal supplements, like St. John’s Wort or valerian, can increase the sedative effects of sleeping pills, potentially leading to excessive sleepiness or slowed breathing.

Certain Antifungal and Antibiotic Medications: Some medications, like certain antifungals and antibiotics, can affect the metabolism of certain sleeping pills, potentially increasing their sedative effects.

What Happens If You Overdose on Sleeping Pills?

Overdosing on sleeping pills can lead to various outcomes, largely dependent on the type of medication taken and the dose. As central nervous system depressants, sleeping pills can slow down vital functions of the body, leading to potentially life-threatening conditions.

The physical signs of a sleeping pill overdose can include extreme lethargy, confusion, shallow or difficulty breathing, decreased heart rate, and loss of coordination or clumsiness. More severe signs can consist of unconsciousness or coma. Some people might also experience nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain.

If combined with other substances like opioids or alcohol, the depressive effects on the central nervous system can be amplified, leading to an even greater risk of harmful outcomes, including fatality. For example, benzodiazepine overdose, while rarely fatal, can become deadly when mixed with opioids or alcohol.

The effects of an overdose can also vary based on the specific medication involved.

For example, an overdose on certain sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, or Sonata could lead to potentially dangerous sleep-related behaviors, like sleepwalking or even sleep driving.

Overdosing on over-the-counter sleep aids or supplements, such as melatonin, is less likely but could still result in unpleasant side effects such as dizziness, headache, nausea, or diarrhea.

In a suspected overdose, seeking immediate medical attention is crucial. Healthcare professionals can provide life-saving interventions, such as administering a reversal agent or supportive care while the body metabolizes the drug.

Remember, prevention is the best approach to handling a potential overdose situation. Always use medications as directed by a healthcare provider, avoid mixing medicines unless directed by a healthcare provider, and seek help if you or a loved one is struggling with substance misuse.

Symptoms of a Sleeping Pill Overdose

Recognizing the signs of a sleeping pill overdose can be crucial to getting timely medical help and reducing the risk of extreme health consequences. Here are some of the common physical signs and symptoms that can indicate a sleeping pill overdose:

  • Extreme lethargy or drowsiness: An individual who overdosed on sleeping pills may appear sleepy or have difficulty staying awake. They may also exhibit unusual fatigue or weakness.
  • Abdominal pain or nausea: Overdosing on sleeping pills can upset the stomach, leading to discomfort, pain, or nausea. In some cases, this may also lead to vomiting.
  • Breathing trouble: Slowed or shallow breathing is a serious sign of a sleeping pill overdose. In severe cases, the person might stop breathing entirely.
  • Clumsiness or loss of coordination: An individual might stumble, have difficulty walking, or be unable to perform tasks that require coordination.
  • Confusion or delirium: The person may appear confused or disoriented or have difficulty speaking or understanding others.
  • Unconsciousness or coma: In severe cases, a person may lose consciousness or fall into a coma.

These symptoms can occur when a person takes a significantly higher dose than intended. Sometimes, an overdose can happen when a person takes 60–90 times the intended dose. However, it’s essential to note that the specific quantity that can lead to an overdose can vary based on the individual’s tolerance, body weight, age, overall health status, and whether other substances like alcohol or opioids have been consumed.

If you suspect someone is overdosing on sleeping pills, it’s vital to seek emergency medical attention immediately. Overdoses can be life-threatening, but prompt medical intervention can significantly improve the likelihood of survival.

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Treatment for Sleeping Pill Overdose

If a sleeping pill overdose is suspected, seeking immediate medical attention is crucial. The specific treatment for an overdose will depend on the type and amount of sleeping pill taken and the individual’s overall health status. That said, there are several standard treatment approaches:

  1. Flumazenil: Flumazenil is a medication often used in cases of benzodiazepine overdose, which includes some types of sleeping pills. It works by blocking the effects of benzodiazepines on the brain, effectively reversing the overdose. However, it’s not effective for all types of sleeping pills and can have its risks, so medical professionals decide its use on a case-by-case basis.
  2. Gastric Lavage (Stomach Pump): This is a procedure where a tube is inserted down the patient’s throat into the stomach to pump out its contents. A stomach pump can be used if the sleeping pills were taken very recently.
  3. Activated Charcoal: Activated charcoal can absorb sleeping pills in the stomach and prevent further absorption into the body. Charcoal is usually most effective if used within an hour of ingestion.
  4. Supportive Care: This can include intravenous fluids to maintain hydration and balance electrolytes, medications to manage symptoms like seizures or irregular heart rhythms, and potentially using a ventilator to assist with breathing.

Regardless of the specific treatment, the goal is to stabilize the patient, manage symptoms, and prevent further harm. Recovery from an overdose of sleeping pills can take time and may require hospitalization. Afterward, if the overdose was intentional or indicates a problem with substance misuse, additional treatment, such as counseling or addiction treatment, may be necessary.

Remember, the best strategy is to prevent an overdose from happening in the first place by using sleeping pills only as directed by a healthcare provider. If you or someone you know is struggling with the misuse of sleeping pills, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Can You Overdose on Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the body that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. It is also available as a dietary supplement and is commonly used as a sleep aid. But can you overdose on melatonin?

While it is technically possible to take too much melatonin, an overdose is highly unlikely. Extensive studies on melatonin have found no evidence of an overdose, even at extremely high doses taken for weeks.

This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences to taking too much melatonin. Overconsumption of melatonin can lead to several uncomfortable side effects, including:

  • Headache: Some people may experience headaches after taking too much melatonin.
  • Low or high blood pressure: Melatonin can affect blood pressure levels. If you have any existing blood pressure issues, consult your healthcare provider before starting melatonin.
  • Drowsiness: Overconsumption of melatonin can lead to excessive sleepiness during the day.
  • Vomiting: In some cases, taking too much melatonin can lead to nausea or vomiting.
  • Worsened alopecia areata: This is an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. While this is a less common side effect, it’s worth noting if you have this condition.

It’s important to remember that while melatonin is available over the counter and is not a prescription medication, it’s still wise to use it responsibly. Always follow the dosing instructions on the label, and consult your healthcare provider if you’re considering taking melatonin to help with sleep issues, particularly if you’re already taking other medications or have underlying health conditions.

Celebrities Who Overdosed on Sleeping Pills

  • Marilyn Monroe: The legendary film star died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1962. She had a turbulent personal life and had attempted suicide four times before​​.
  • Judy Garland: She died at age 47 in 1969 of an overdose of barbiturates. Garland became hooked on stimulants and depressants when she was a young Hollywood starlet​1.
  • Jimi Hendrix: The famed electric guitarist died after overdosing on sleeping pills in 1970​.
  • Elvis Presley: Presley died in 1977 at his Graceland home in Tennessee at the age of 42. Toxicologists noted at least eight different barbiturates and narcotics in his body at the time. He had been a long-time abuser of prescription drugs.
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Side Effects of Sleeping Pills

Even before an overdose occurs, misusing sleeping pills can lead to serious side effects. These side effects can impact an individual’s health and quality of life long before an overdose arises.

Sleeping pills are central nervous system depressants. While they can help induce sleep, they can also lead to unwanted side effects, especially when misused or taken in larger than recommended doses. These side effects include dizziness, memory issues, impaired thinking, and surprising ones like increased agitation or anxiety.

One of the most dangerous side effects of misusing sleeping pills is the occurrence of sleep-induced injuries. Examples of these activities can include sleepwalking, eating, or sleep driving. These activities can result in injuries to oneself or others and lead to legal issues.

The Importance of Safe Sleep Aid Use

Sleeping pill overdose represents a serious risk, particularly when these medications are misused or taken without the supervision of a healthcare provider. It’s crucial to understand these risks and to use sleeping pills responsibly.

If you or someone you know is struggling with the misuse of sleeping pills or any other substance, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Numerous resources are available for individuals and families dealing with substance misuse and addiction. Remember, it’s never too late to reach out and start the path toward recovery.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Chris Carberg is the Founder of Addiction HelpWritten by:

AddictionHelp.com Founder & Mental Health Advocate

Chris Carberg is the founder of AddictionHelp.com, and a long-time recovering addict from prescription opioids, sedatives, and alcohol.  Over the past 15 years, Chris has worked as a tireless advocate for addicts and their loved ones while becoming a sought-after digital entrepreneur. Chris is a storyteller and aims to share his story with others in the hopes of helping them achieve their own recovery.

  1. Brandt, J., & Leong, C. (2017, December). Benzodiazepines and Z-drugs: An Updated Review Of Major Adverse Outcomes Reported On In Epidemiologic Research. Drugs in R&D. Retrieved May 31, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5694420/
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, February 16). 1 in 3 Adults Don’t Get Enough Sleep. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 31, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, January 25). Sleep Medication Use in Adults Aged 18 and Over: United States, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 31, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db462.htm
  4. Duff-Brown, B., Conger, K., & Leggett, H. (2023, April 26). Taking Painkillers With Sleeping Pills Is an Increasingly Risky Business. Scope. Retrieved May 31, 2023, from https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2017/03/14/taking-painkillers-with-sleeping-pills-is-an-increasingly-risky-business/
  5. Gunja, N. (2013, June). The Clinical and Forensic Toxicology of Z-Drugs. Journal of Medical Toxicology : Official Journal of the American College of Medical Toxicology. Retrieved May 31, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3657020/
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2023, February 13). What Is the Scope of Prescription Drug Misuse in the United States?. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved May 31, 2023, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/what-scope-prescription-drug-misuse
  7. Schifano, F., Chiappini, S., Corkery, J. M., & Guirguis, A. (2019, April 1). An Insight into Z-drug Abuse and Dependence: An Examination of Reports to the European Medicines Agency Database of Suspected Adverse Drug Reactions. The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. Retrieved May 31, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6441128/
  8. Weaver, M. F. (2015, September 3). Prescription Sedative Misuse and Abuse. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. Retrieved May 31, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553644/

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