Top 5 Over the Counter Sleep Aids

Written by Sabine Downer

Sleep aids attract many users for a variety of reasons. No matter their background, sleep aid users seek to avoid fatigue from lack of sleep and want to avoid sleeping medications that will leave them feeling groggy in the morning. So what are the best over-the-counter sleep aid options for a good night’s rest?

“Approximately 6.3 million older adults in the United States report having sleep problems,1 and nearly one‐third of older adults report <7 hours of sleep per 24‐hour period [1].”

Risks of Sleep Loss

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep per night [RISKS]. Not getting enough sleep will lead to what they call “sleep debt,” which is an impaired state that includes confusion, slow thinking, and error-prone. The CDC notes that individuals’ sleep needs can vary, but you may be surprised to learn that our need for sleep can be an inherited trait [2]!

3 Signs You Get Enough Sleep

  • You feel refreshed in the morning
  • You don’t feel drowsy during the day
  • You don’t feel the need to consume a lot of caffeine

What Are Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids?

Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids are sleep-promoting medications that are available without a prescription. Even if they do not require a prescription, be sure to let your physician know if you take them since they can interact with other medications and should be monitored. If you find your OTC sleep aid isn’t working as well as it first did, be aware that this is normal. Most OTC sleep aids lose effectiveness over time [4, 5]. The most common ingredient in OTC sleep aids is antihistamines that can leave you exhausted the following day. Herbal supplements like melatonin and valerian root are also available without a prescription and may not leave you as drowsy the next day.

Top 5 OTC Sleep Aids

  1. Melatonin
  2. Benadryl
  3. Unisom
  4. Tylenol PM
  5. Valerian

Side Effects of OTC Sleep Aids

Side effects of OTC sleep aids can include daytime drowsiness, headache, dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation, and urinary retention [5]. These side effects mainly occur with antihistamine-based medications like Benadryl or Unisom. Melatonin can lead to headaches and daytime drowsiness but is generally well tolerated. Be sure to never mix any sleep aid with alcohol!

Safe Use of OTC Sleep Aids

Over-the-counter sleep aids can temporarily help with sleep problems. Napping during the day, inconsistent bedtime, consumption of stimulants or food too close to bedtime, insufficient exercise, and reading or watching TV in bed are among the most common causes of sleep problems [1]. When taking sleep aids, be sure to talk to your doctor and read (and follow) the directions for use, especially if you are one of the 26% of recently retired older adults that report having sleep problems.

Image Source: by Photo by Mpho Mojapelo on Unsplash


  1. Abraham O, Schleiden LJ, Brothers AL, Albert SM. Managing sleep problems using non-prescription medications and the role of community pharmacists: older adults’ perspectives. Int J Pharm Pract. 2017;25(6):438-446. doi:10.1111/ijpp.12334 Retrieved 2021-3-29 from
  2. Basic Information about Sleep and Fatigue. . Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. Published 2021. Accessed March 29, 2021 from
  3. Risks from Not Getting Enough Sleep. Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. Published 2021. Accessed March 29, 2021 from
  4. Sleep Medicines. Published 2021. Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed March 29, 2021 from
  5. Your Guide to Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids. Mayo Clinic. Published 2019. Accessed March 29, 2021 from


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Sabine Downer

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