Sleeping Pill Safety: Study Sends a Wake-Up Call

It may be time to rethink what you’re willing to do for a good night’s sleep. According to a new study, taking prescription sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata — even once in a while — puts patients at a much higher risk of dying or developing cancer.

“It looks like sleeping pills could be as risky as smoking cigarettes. It looks much more dangerous to take these pills than to treat insomnia another way,” said Daniel F. Kripke, MD (who headed up the study) in an interview with WebMD.

And you don’t even need to take that many prescription sleeping pills over time before you’re exposed to the health risks. The BMJ (British Medical Journal) Open study found that even patients who were prescribed fewer than 18 hypnotic sleeping pills per year saw “greater than threefold increased hazards of death.” (Hypnotic sleeping pills are designed to induce sleep, not merely promote sleep through relaxation, according to WebMD.)

As this ABC News article points out, however, the study may not be telling the full health story of those who participated: “the study did not say why the patients were prescribed the sleeping medications, whether the patients were evaluated by a sleep specialist, or whether they were also undergoing other types of treatment for any underlying health conditions — all important factors when weighing an increased risk of death, said Dr. Steven Scharf, professor of medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.”

The study will be published in the online-only medical journal BMJ Open (see an abstract here.)

More from Nolo: Drug Safety and the Law.