Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and excluding bad habits, such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, should be the first steps when treating symptoms of insomnia. But these changes may not be enough and medication alongside behavioral therapy may be needed.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, around 25 percent of Americans take some type of medication every year to help them sleep. There are a range of prescription and over-the-counter sleep aid medications available. The type of drug and dose will depend on your symptoms and medical history.

Prescription sleep aids

Prescription medications for insomnia include sedatives, tranquilizers, and anti-anxiety drugs. Doctors don't recommend taking sleeping pills for more than two to three weeks, as they can become habit-forming. Dosage and duration will vary depending on the patient's diagnosis, medical history, and current condition.

Some prescription sleep medications include:

  • eszopiclone (Lunesta)—a non-benzodiazepine sedative
  • ramelteon (Rozerem)—a melatonin receptor agonist
  • trazodone (Desyrel)—an antidepressant of the serotonin antagonist and reuptake inhibitor (SARI) class
  • zaleplon (Sonata)— a non-benzodiazepine sedative/hypnotic
  • zolpidem (Ambien)—a non-benzodiazepine hypnotic

Studies have shown that sleep aid medications are effective at shortening the time it takes to fall asleep, increasing the length of sleep, decreasing the amount of awakenings, and improving the overall quality of sleep.

In rare cases, these medications may cause allergic reactions, facial swelling, and unusual behaviors such as driving or cooking and eating while asleep. The side effects of prescription sleeping drugs are often more pronounced in older adults and include excessive drowsiness, impaired thinking, night-wandering, agitation, and balance problems. Talk to your doctor immediately if you experience any undesirable side effects while taking sleep aid medications.

If the insomnia is related to depression, an anti-depressant medication may be helpful.

Over-the-counter aids

Many people use sleep aid medications that are available without a prescription. Numerous non-prescription sleep aids contain antihistamines that can induce drowsiness. But antihistamines can reduce the quality of sleep, and they can cause side effects such as continued drowsiness during the day, dry mouth, and blurred vision.

Although not a drug, melatonin is also commonly used as a sleep aid. Melatonin is a dietary supplement available at most pharmacies. Learn more about melatonin.