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There are two ways to get sleeping pills in the UK — by prescription or over the counter. Over the counter sleep aids include drowsy antihistamines, as well as herbal sleeping tablets. These should only be used for a short period of time. If you experience ongoing sleep problems, speak to your doctor.
Support for a Good Night’s Sleep
According to the NHS, a third of Brits will suffer from episodes of insomnia at some point in their life. This means they’ll regularly experience problems sleeping — due to things like stress or anxiety, shift work, jet lag or other stressors.
Even shorter, one-off periods of sleeplessness — such as when we have a nasty cough or cold — can really disrupt our life, too.
It’s during these moments that many Brits turn to sleeping aid tablets. In fact, more than one in 10 people in the UK are using them to improve the quality of their sleep.
There are two ways to get sleeping pills in the UK:
- By prescription: Stronger tablets for severe insomnia
- Over the counter (OTC): Milder aids to promote sleepiness
In this piece we’ll take a close look at your options if you want to buy sleeping pills over the counter in the UK.
Which Sleeping Pills Can You Get Over The Counter In The UK?
Most over the counter sleeping pills available in the UK are antihistamines. You may have taken antihistamines to treat hay fever or pet allergies. Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine — the chemical our nervous system produces that causes annoying allergy symptoms like a runny nose or sneezing.
But, interestingly enough, this process of blocking histamines often causes drowsiness. That’s why antihistamines can be used as sleep aids.
Be aware though: some antihistamines, such as Loratadine, are purposefully designed to be “non-drowsy,” so stay away from those if you want to find it easier to get to sleep.
There are two main “drowsy” antihistamines available over the counter (though you can also get them on prescription):
- Diphenhydramine tablets
- Promethazine tablets
You’ll find that brand name OTC sleeping aid tablets like Nytol and Benadryl contain Diphenhydramine, while Avomine and Sominex contain Promethazine.
There are a range of herbal or natural sleeping aids available over the counter. Most of them include similar ingredients, such as:
- Valerian root. A tall, flowering grassland plant which some studies say can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
- Chamomile and lavender. Traditional remedies for poor sleep found in calming herbal teas and many other night-time products.
- Magnesium. Often thought to reduce stress and muscle tension, this mineral should be found in our food if we eat a balanced diet. However, that doesn’t always happen. Some studies have found that extra oral supplements can improve sleep.
- Vitamin B12. This vitamin plays a role in the production of melatonin, which helps our body know when to fall asleep.
How Long Does It Take For OTC Sleeping Pills To Work?
Antihistamines take longer to kick in than stronger sleeping pills like benzodiazepines and the Z-drugs.
According to the NHS, both diphenhydramine and promethazine need about 30 minutes to take effect. They recommend that you take antihistamine sleep aids around 20 minutes before you head to bed.
What Are The Side Effects Of OTC Sleeping Tablets?
Over the counter sleeping pills are largely safe and effective. But just because they are available without a prescription, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have side effects. It’s important to be aware of these before you take them.
Diphenhydramine can leave you feeling sleepy, of course, but also dizzy or unsteady on your feet. You may also find it difficult to concentrate and have a dry mouth.
Promethazine can make you drowsy, but in some cases it can also cause some of the following:
- Dizzy, restlessness, or confusion.
Both promethazine and diphenhydramine can stop working if you take them continuously for too long. In some cases, you can become dependent on them. It’s important to speak to your doctor if you need to take them for more than a few weeks.
There are fewer side effects for herbal remedies and natural sleep aids than with antihistamines. However as with anything you take you should check the accompanying documentation.
Who Should Avoid Taking Over The Counter Sleeping Tablets?
Most adults can take antihistamine OTC sleep aids safely. But you should consult your doctor if you have ever had an allergic reaction to any of the active ingredients, any other medicine, or alcohol. You should also speak to a doctor if you’re trying to get pregnant, if you already are pregnant, or if you’re breastfeeding.
These medications can also cause problems for people with:
- Lung problems
- A blockage in their stomach or gut
- Problems emptying their bladder
- An eye condition called narrow angle glaucoma
Which Sleeping Pills Are Right For Me?
You can get over the counter sleeping aids without speaking to your doctor. But if you’re experiencing ongoing sleeping problems, and if short-term sleep aids aren’t working, talk to a doctor.
Your healthcare provider can help you to establish the causes behind your insomnia and suggest the right solutions. This could involve prescription sleep medication, lifestyle changes, and psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
Antihistamines are the strongest over the counter sleeping pills you can get in the UK. They’re designed for short term sleep problems. However, if you’re experiencing ongoing sleep problems you might need something stronger.
At Manual, we can help. Find our full range of sleep supplements here.
Are Sleeping Tablets Banned in the UK?
No, but strong sleeping pills such as benzodiazepines, “Z-drugs”, and antidepressants are only available on prescription in the UK. If you think you need a powerful sleeping aid to help with insomnia, speak to your doctor.