Sleeping Pills and Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Posted by Tyler Britton on May 16, 2019 8:15:49 AM

Sleeping Pills and Obstructive Sleep Apnea

What Exactly is a Sleeping Pill

Sleeping pills are known as sedative hypnotics. They relax the mind and body in order to help prompt sleep. They are prescribed to people who have trouble getting asleep, and/or staying asleep, such as I the case of insomniacs.

Sleeping pills can be:

  • Sleeping pills like ambien, Klonopin, etc.
  • Over the counter aids like Benadryl, Tylenol-PM, and Advil-PM
  • Side effects of antihistamine, and antidepressants

For insomniacs they can feel like a lifeline, but they also come with hidden dangers. Namely, they are not a reasonable solution for people with untreated obstructive sleep apnea. In the words of sleep specialist Dr. Thomas Winkler, “For my patients with untreated sleep apnea, I tell them [taking sleeping pills] is a bad idea.”

Why Sleeping Pills are a Bad for Sleep Apnea

While sleeping pills relax the body to help us sleep, in doing so they relax muscles that can:

  • Act as an instigator of inciting sleep apnea for people at risk
  • Make untreated sleep apnea worse

The reason that the muscle relaxing property of sleeping pills antagonizes obstructive sleep apnea is because of what causes sleep apnea.

What Causes Obstructive Sleep Apnea


Obstructive sleep apnea is caused when:

  • Tissue and breathing muscles in back of the throat relax
  • The back of the throat collapses
  • Either the soft pallet, back of tongue, tonsils, etc. block the airway
  • Breathing ceases until the body is roused from sleep to resume breathing

You can see a visual depiction of sleep apnea here.

Sleeping pills assist in the relaxation of the throat muscles that can worsen/cause obstructive sleep apnea.

Who is At Risk for Obstructive Sleep Apnea from Sleep Pills

People who are at risk for obstructive sleep apnea already have existing risk factors (listed below) coupled with other sleeping disorders that disrupt sleep cycles, namely:

There’s no reason that one can’t suffer from both OSA and other sleeping disorders. Some other risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea are:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having a thick or large neck
  • Having smaller airways in your throat, nose or mouth.
  • Having enlarged tonsils
  • Having a deviated septum
  • Having a large tongue
  • Having diabetes
  • Genetics/family history
  • Having certain medical conditions that cause sleep apnea (rare)
  • Age/Sex (older men are most common demographic for sleep apnea)
  • Sleeping on your back
  • Drinking excess alcohol

If you have insomnia and are concerned about taking sleeping pills but feeling desperate to get aid in sleeping, contact your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist for further information.

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Topics: Sleep Apnea

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