Sleeping Pill Overdose: Dangers, Side Effects and Symptoms

sleeping pill

Getting a good night’s sleep has always been one of the most rewarding things you can expect in your everyday life. People take sleep for granted most of the time, especially if they need to do something urgent that needs their immediate attention. While some people pull all-nighters deliberately all the time, there are some who don’t exactly have any choice about it. We’re talking about individuals who are having some difficulty sleeping through the night. This could happen for any number of reasons and sometimes may require some medical solution like sleeping pills. While highly effective when used correctly, many sleeping pills pose a serious risk for abuse and addiction.

What Are Sleeping Pills?

Prescription sleeping pills are sedative medications that help slow down brain activity and make it easier for some people to fall asleep and stay asleep. Sleeping pills are primarily used to treat insomnia, which is a condition where a person can’t fall asleep and is one of the most common sleeping disorders among adults. If you happen to fall asleep quite easily but cannot stay asleep at night, sleeping medicines can also be used to help.

Sleep is incredibly important to one’s health. Having a lack of sleep for long periods of time can have an adverse effect on your physical and mental health, leading to more serious conditions. If you’re suffering from a sleeping disorder, a doctor will most probably prescribe a sleep aid to help you ease into sleep mode easily.

How Do Sleeping Pills Work?

Occasional sleepless nights are quite normal, and everyone has had their fair share of it. However, if you regularly find yourself tossing and turning in bed, unable to fall asleep, then taking sleep medication might be a good solution for you. Sleeping pills refer to a broad range of medications that help induce a relaxed state in the brain, helping patients under medication to finally drift off to sleep. These medications work to suppress the central nervous system and reduce the activity of certain neurotransmitters that may be keeping a person awake. While sleeping pills come in different types, they can be classified into three different categories:

  • Hypnotics or GABA Agonists: These target and activate the GABA receptors in the brain, which promote sleepiness. Common medications that fall into this category are Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata.
  • Melatonin Receptor Agonists: Melatonin is a hormone in your body that plays a vital role in your natural sleep-wake cycle. A typical melatonin receptor, like Rozerem, targets and activates the melatonin receptors. It works by mimicking the effects of melatonin.
  • Orexin Receptor Antagonists: This is the newest class of sleeping pills used to treat insomnia. Orexin receptor antagonists inhibit the effect of orexin, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that keeps you awake. By blocking orexin, you’ll be able to fall asleep much more easily.

Common Types of Sleeping Pills

In some cases, doctors will prescribe drugs for the treatment of insomnia. These medications all have the same goal: to help you fall asleep or maintain your sleepy state. Some common medicines used to treat insomnia include:

  • Antidepressants: These are medications that help relieve symptoms of depression and social anxiety disorder. Some antidepressants, such as trazodone (Desyrel), amitriptyline (Elavil), and doxepin (Sinequan), are all very good at treating sleeplessness and anxiety. These antidepressants have a sedating effect that aims to correct chemical imbalances of neurotransmitters in the brain.
  • Benzodiazepines: Temazepam (Restoril) and triazolam (Halcion) are examples of benzodiazepines, which are considered an older type of sleep medication. They are more useful when a patient requires insomnia medication that stays in the system longer. Suppose a person is suffering from night terrors or sleepwalking, taking benzodiazepines can be an effective form of treatment for these conditions. However, these medications have a greater risk of causing addiction and dependence.
  • Doxepin (Silenor): This sleep drug is approved for use in people who have trouble staying asleep. Sleep maintenance is Silenor’s specialty as it blocks histamine receptors which help promote and stabilize wakefulness.
  • Eszopiclone (Lunesta): Eszopiclone belongs to a class of drugs called sedative-hypnotics. It acts on your brain to produce a calming effect. It helps you fall asleep quickly and for longer. Lunesta can cause grogginess, so it’s recommended to take this if you are able to get a full night’s sleep. Because of the risk of impairment the next day, the FDA recommends that the starting dose of Lunesta be no more than 1 milligram.
  • Ramelteon (Rozerem): As mentioned above, Rozerem works by targeting the sleep-wake cycle by mimicking melatonin. Rozerem can be prescribed for long-term use, and the drug has shown no evidence of abuse or dependence.

Sleeping Pill Abuse and Overdose

A sleeping pill overdose is more likely to occur when other substances are present. Whether OTC or prescription, it is possible to intentionally overdose, or worse, it can lead to drug addiction. As most sleeping pills have sedative effects, mixing them with other medication that has a similar effect can produce harmful results on the body. Going beyond the recommended dosage by mixing sedatives with other sedatives presents a dangerous risk for anyone with the possibility of overdose, coma, and death.

Signs of an Overdose

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t realize when they are experiencing an overdose due to substance abuse. This is especially true with sleeping pills since users are sedated, making it hard to see the signs of overdose. Some notable sleeping pill overdose symptoms are as follows:

  • Extreme lethargy or tiredness is one of the earliest signs of overdose. If someone who has taken sleeping pills is suddenly unable to function properly, then an overdose has probably occurred already.
  • Under sedation, a person’s breathing becomes slower, making it harder to tell if the effects of overdose are occurring. One of the few signs to watch out for is if there are irregular breathing patterns.
  • Being unresponsive while sedated is also a telltale sign of overdose. If a person doesn’t wake up no matter how much you try to wake them, then their life is very likely in danger.

Mixing Other Substances with Sleeping Pills 

Mixing substances, also known as polysubstance abuse, is even more dangerous as it heightens the effects that drugs have on one another. For example, the use of alcohol in conjunction with sleep medication is never recommended. While alcohol is widely used and socially accepted, few realize the dangers it presents when mixed with other substances. Possible side effects of sedatives include slowed breathing, lowered heart rate, and impaired cognitive function. 

sleeping pill side effects
Sleeping Pills and Alcohol

Sleeping Pill Dependence and Withdrawal

In addition to the risk of overdose, sleeping pill abuse can lead to addiction and physical dependence. Someone who is addicted to sleeping pills will more likely experience intense drug cravings, be unable to sleep without taking a pill, and lie to people close to them about their drug use. As with any other form of drug addiction, people will experience withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to stop taking the drug abruptly:

  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Seizure
  • Cravings
  • Depression and Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Hallucinations
  • Shakiness
  • Elevated blood pressure and heart rate


Sleeping pill addiction is a severe problem. Any type of sleep medication manipulates the chemistry of the brain and the body in some way, which makes it a much more potent drug if abused or misused. While insomnia may be a terrible condition to have, overmedicating with sleeping pills is a much more terrifying condition to be in. Fortunately, there is help for people with insomnia and sleeping pill addiction.