Sleep Apnea and Sleeping Pills: Why Is It A Bad Combination?

Sleep Apnea pills

If you have a stressful, fast-paced life, you probably suffer from insomnia from time to time. And you’ve probably thought of getting some sort of sleeping pills to ease down your stress and help you fall asleep. But if you think you’re a sleep apnea patient, or if you actually are one, stop what you’re doing, and keep reading! 

Sleeping pills and sleep apnea might just be one of the worst combinations ever. In fact, it can sometimes be a threat to your health. 

So, before making your sedative sleeping pills your go-to solution for insomnia, you need to find out what health risks are associated with mixing sleeping pills and sleep apnea. Curious yet? Keep reading!

Why Sleep Apnea and Sleeping Pills Is a Bad Mix

Insomnia and sleep apnea are a terrible combination to have. In the United States,  30% of adults experience short-term insomnia, and 10% suffer from long-term insomnia. In addition, almost 3-7% of men suffer from sleep apnea, while 2-5% of women do. 

We all know that sleeping pills, or sedative hypnotics, help people with insomnia fall asleep faster. Such medications are prescribed to people not only to help them fall asleep, but also to help them stay asleep the whole night. 

Though insomnia and sleep apnea can come hand in hand, they’re two different things. If you’re suffering from both conditions, you may find it appropriate to reach for your sleeping pills every night, and this might be a very good reason for your sleeping apnea to get worse. 

In order to put you to sleep, sleeping pills work on the relaxation of your body and mind, which also includes your muscles. This can make your untreated sleep apnea much worse.

As you may know, sleep apnea relaxes the tissue in the back of your throat, it falls backwards and blocks the airway. Your soft palate and the muscle in your tongue are among the tissues that are affected by this.

If you lie down, especially on your back, gravity pulls your soft palate and tongue down to the back of your throat. 

As you sleep, these muscles relax, and they lose their muscular tone, which is how “tight” they stay when relaxed. When they relax, they narrow your airway, due to what is called a posterior displacement of the soft palate and tongue, which simply means they moved backward. 

So, taking sleeping pills will help these muscles relax, making sleep apnea and snoring even worse.

How Anti-Anxiety Drugs Can Make Sleep Apnea Worse

Benzodiazepines are a class of medications that are prescribed to people with insomnia, anxiety, and muscle spasms. These include Xanax (Alprazolam),  Ativan (Lorazepam), and Valium (Diazepam).

These anxiolytics have been proved effective for treating people with anxiety. They also have anti-seizure and muscle-relaxing properties. People with muscle spasms commonly use them for the lower back area. 

As good as these medications seem, using them along with untreated apnea may well make it worse. 

Several sleeping pills can worsen your sleep apnea, such as Ambien (Zolpidem), Halcion (Triazolam), Klonopin (Clonazepam), Lunesta (Eszopiclone), Sonata (Zaleplon), and  Restoril (Temazepam). All of these medications have a sedating effect which induces sleep, but can be terrible if you have sleep apnea. 

Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids Can Also Have a Negative Effect on Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can be triggered by some over-the-counter sleep aids, like Tylenol-PM, Advil-PM, and Benadryl, since they increase muscle relaxation.

Sometimes, antihistamine medications are prescribed for people with allergies, which can also have sedating effects. Such medications may worsen sleep apnea, especially untreated sleep apnea. 

There are some antidepressants that people use off-label and can also make untreated apnea worse, such as Remeron (Mirtazapine), and Oleptro (Trazodone), and Amitriptyline.

You should be extra careful when you’re not treating the apnea but taking these medications. It’s even better to totally avoid them if you’re not treating your apnea.

Similarly, alcohol has a relaxing effect on the mind and body. It relaxes the throat muscles and makes your apnea worse. Typically, all medications and substances that relax the muscles make untreated apnea worse.

The Ways Sleeping Pills Worsen Your Apnea 

If you suffer from sleep apnea and haven’t taken any active steps to treat it, taking sleeping pills can cause you multiple unpleasant health problems, such as:

  • Feeling exhausted more frequently during the day.
  • Impaired memory and short attention span.
  • Cardiovascular issues like high blood pressure.
  • Diabetes.
  • Mood swings, irritability, and depression.
  • Abnormally loud snoring.

What Should You Do Then?

If you think you’re suffering from sleep apnea, insomnia, or both. The last thing you want to do is to rush into taking medications. You should first get yourself checked and diagnosed, then your sleep dentist will prescribe the right medication for you (if necessary).

A lot of the time, your doctor will prescribe you an appliance that you place into the mouth. It should reposition your mouth so as to avoid any narrowing in the airway by preventing the posterior displacement of tissue. As you might have guessed, these appliances provide you with much more comfort and relief, as opposed to the traditional way of using a CPAP machine.

Your dentist may also advise you to follow certain lifestyle habits to improve your symptoms, like sleeping on your side, not drinking alcohol, and losing weight.

Getting the right answers and treatments from an expert is vital to your symptoms improving, because any wrong treatment can put you at even higher risk. 

Bottom Line

Sleep apnea can be greatly worsened by some anti-anxiety drugs and over-the-counter sleeping aids. The side effects can be as light as mood swings and as serious as high blood pressure and diabetes. 

So, if you have even the slightest doubt about whether you’re a patient of sleep apnea or not, it’s a really bad idea to start taking any kind of sleeping pills before consulting with an expert. 



Dan was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2017 when he was only 32 years old. He has been using a BIPAP machine for his treatment. He hopes to provide a patient's perspective on the sleep apnea experience. Dan lives in Tampa with his girlfriend and 2 dogs.

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