Insomnia Treatment: Sleep Aids and Stimulants

  • Medical Author:
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Quick GuideInsomnia Pictures Slideshow: 20 Tips for Better Sleep

Insomnia Pictures Slideshow: 20 Tips for Better Sleep

What over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are there for insomnia?

Self-treatment of insomnia with over-the-counter (OTC) drugs is advisable only for transient or short-term insomnia. OTC sleep aids should only be used for a short period of time in conjunction with changes in sleeping habits. Chronic use of these drugs may result in dependence on them. This creates a situation in which sleep is not possible unless the drug is used. Chronic insomnia should be evaluated by a physician.


Diphenhydramine (for example, Sominex, Nytol) and doxylamine (for example, Unisom) are antihistamines currently marketed as OTC sleep aids. Diphenhydramine is the only agent considered to be safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. Other uses for diphenhydramine include allergies, motion sickness, and cough suppression. Scientists believe that diphenhydramine and doxylamine cause sedation by blocking the action of histamine in the brain, but the exact mechanism of action is not known.

If insomnia is associated with pain, there are numerous products containing a combination of an antihistamine and pain reliever. These combination products should not be used if pain is not present because the added pain reliever is not necessary.

Pregnancy and lactation: The effects of diphenhydramine and doxylamine on the fetus have not been evaluated adequately. Diphenhydramine  is classified as a pregnancy "category B" drug, and is routinely safely used during pregnancy. Although the likelihood of an adverse effect on the fetus is low, sleeping agents probably should be avoided during pregnancy. Both agents may decrease lactation (production of milk). Additionally, these drugs are secreted into the breast milk, which could affect the newborn. Nursing mothers should avoid both drugs. Consult a physician if you are pregnant and have insomnia.

Children: Children less than 12 years of age should not use doxylamine because its use in this in age group has not been assessed.

Elderly: Sedative effects of these drugs may interact with other potentially sedating medications. Consult a doctor before using these drugs.

Drug interactions: Diphenhydramine and doxylamine add to the sedative effects of alcohol and other medications that cause drowsiness.

Side effects: Drowsiness is the most frequent side effect of both diphenhydramine and doxylamine. These agents should not be used in situations where mental alertness is required (for example, driving). Diphenhydramine and doxylamine also cause constipation, dry mouth, and difficulty urinating. Both drugs may worsen the symptoms of glaucoma, asthma, heart problems, and prostate gland enlargement. People with these conditions should not use OTC sleep aids without consulting a physician.

Both drugs may paradoxically cause excitation, resulting in nervousness and insomnia. This occurs most often in children and the elderly.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/20/2015

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Depression Newsletter

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors