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Signs & Symptoms of Sleeping Pill Abuse

Signs and symptoms of sleeping pill abuse include sleepwalking, memory problems, blackouts, reduced coordination, and poor balance, among others.

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Sleeping pills work by activating neurotransmitters that are involved in regulation of central nervous system activity. For example, Ambien works by activating the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which results in a reduced rate of intercellular communication and a sedative effect that can help users fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the course of the night. 

However, sleeping pills can be habit-forming because of this effect and lead to tolerance, abuse, and addiction. Tolerance refers to the adaptation of the body to the presence of a foreign substance, causing you to need more of that substance to produce a desired effect. 

Abuse refers to the consumption of more than the amount listed on a prescription label or the consumption of a substance more often than what is listed. Addiction is when a substance use disorder (SUD) has formed, including a chemical and/or psychological dependence on a drug. 

What Are the Most Common Signs & Symptoms of Sleeping Pill Abuse?

The signs and symptoms of sleeping pill abuse depend largely on the type of substance that is being abused, as not all function the same or have identical impacts on the body. Signs and symptoms of the abuse of pills like Ambien that target GABA activity can include the following: 

  • Sleepwalking
  • Memory loss
  • Persistent blackouts
  • Reduced social inhibition and increased talkativeness
  • Poor motor coordination 
  • Impaired balance
  • Increased sexual activity or desires

However, anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants, which are often prescribed as alternatives to Ambien and can have distinct effects. These drugs tend to repress sexual desire and activity while taken and are not known to cause memory loss or sleepwalking. 

Natural alternatives to Ambien, such as Valerian root, are not typically habit-forming, and abuse of these herbs is rare. The long-term risks and side effects associated with these natural alternatives are also considerably less abundant. 

What Are the Dangers of Sleeping Pills?

In addition to signs of abuse, sleeping pills can increase the short-term and long-term risks of many health issues and circumstances. One of the risks is that the abuse of sleeping pills can create a state of extreme sedation and increase the likelihood of entering a coma. 

Overdosing on sleeping pills can also increase the risk of experiencing a seizure. 

Abuse of sleeping pills can create a severe state of sedation to the point that you cannot remember events that took place, such as sleepwalking or sexual activity. This extreme sedation can also make you more vulnerable to the risk of being victimized by unwanted sexual activity. This risk is substantial enough that the FDA added a Black Box warning to some prescription insomnia medications in 2019. 

Addiction to sleeping pills may increase the risk of some forms of cancer. It can also increase the likelihood of hypertension, anxiety, respiratory problems, and irregular or rapid heartbeat. 

Mental Effects

Some of the common mental effects of the abuse of sleeping pills can include the following:

  • Hallucinations
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Drowsiness
  • Impaired coordination and motor skills

Emotional Effects

In addition to these mental effects, emotional effects that can result from the abuse of sleeping pills may include the following:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Irritability, particularly in the absence of the preferred substance

How to Recognize Sleeping Pill Addiction

Recognizing an addiction in yourself or a loved one is not always easy. However, a commonality across all forms of sleeping pill addiction is abuse, which refers to the use of a medication in any way other than what is listed on the prescription label. If you know someone who is using prescription pills that were not prescribed to them, this constitutes abuse. 

Additional ways to recognize a sleeping pill addiction can include the following:

  • Needing larger and larger doses in order to fall asleep (a sign of tolerance)
  • Trying to quit multiple times and not being successful
  • Ignoring professional or social obligations due to the pursuit or effects of sleeping pills
  • Seeking to obtain sleeping pills illicitly
  • Experiencing financial difficulties as a result of purchasing large amounts of sleeping pills

Sleeping Pill Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal is a process that occurs when a substance that the body has grown accustomed to is discontinued. As the body naturally adapts and seeks to achieve homeostasis, the absence of the previously consumed drug can create physical symptoms that may be uncomfortable and difficult to manage. 

Withdrawal symptoms that are associated with sleeping pills include the following: 

  • Nervousness
  • Shakiness
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Perspiration
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Cravings for more sleeping pills
  • Hallucinations and delirium
  • Seizures, in rare cases

The risk of these symptoms and their duration is dependent on the specific pill as well as the quantity and duration of consumption. For example, Ambien has a half-life of just a few hours, and withdrawal symptoms may occur within six to eight hours following the last dosage. These symptoms will likely reach their peak between one and five days following last use and gradually subside over the course of the next one to two weeks. 

If your symptoms are severe and/or if you have been consuming either large doses of sleeping pills or using it for an extended period of time, you may need medical detox. This is a structured and medically supervised tapering process from a substance, often within a residential healthcare facility. 

With medical detox, you are monitored by medical professionals, ensuring that you remain physically and psychologically safe throughout the process. You’ll also have support and supervision, so relapse during this vulnerable time is much less likely. 

What to Do if Someone You Know Has Overdosed on Sleeping Pills

If someone you know has overdosed on sleeping pills, you need to seek medical help immediately. Call 911, and the responder will walk you through exactly how to proceed while documenting important information about the event. 

If the person has lost consciousness, it ensures that their airway is clear of any vomit or excess saliva to prevent choking. It’s generally recommended to roll them on their side into the recovery position. If they are not breathing, begin CPR.

Since sleeping pills are often benzodiazepines, flumazenil is sometimes administered in cases of overdose. It works as a benzodiazepine antagonist, inhibiting the action of sleeping pills and helping to reverse the overdose. This medication does come with risks, however, so it should only be administered by medical professionals who deem it appropriate.

Getting Help for Addiction to Sleeping Pills

If you have been struggling with abuse of sleeping pills, it’s a sign that you need help. Few people are able to deal with addiction on their own, but with professional treatment, they can effectively manage their addiction and stop substance abuse.

Treatment for sleeping pill addiction comes in a range of forms, including inpatient rehab, outpatient treatment, and ongoing aftercare. Through individual and group therapy sessions, as well as alternative therapies and support group participation, you can embrace a new life in recovery. Reach out for help today.

Updated June 8, 2023
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