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Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers

Explains what sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers are used for, how the medication works, possible side effects and information about withdrawal.

What are sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers?

Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers are sedative medications. This means they slow down your body and brain's functions. For example, this may be your breathing, heartbeat and thought processes.

These medications can be prescribed for severe anxiety or insomnia (difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep). This includes prescribing:

You may also hear these drugs referred to as hypnotics and anxiolytics. And although we use the term ‘sleeping pills’ to describe many of these drugs, some of them may also be available as a liquid, either to swallow or inject.

How could sleeping pills or minor tranquillisers help me?

These drugs are usually prescribed to:

  • reduce your symptoms of anxiety, such as feeling very agitated or shaky
  • help you overcome insomnia, so you can return to a more healthy sleep pattern.

They can’t cure anxiety or insomnia. This is because they don't deal with the underlying causes of these problems. But they can help you feel calmer and more relaxed in the short term.

Who can prescribe sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers?

The healthcare professionals who can prescribe you sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers include:

  • your doctor (GP)
  • a psychiatrist
  • a specialist nurse prescriber
  • a specialist pharmacist
  • your dentist.

These information pages usually refer to 'your doctor' prescribing this medication. They are the most likely person to prescribe you these drugs.

When might I be offered sleeping pills or minor tranquillisers?

You should only be offered these drugs if:

  • you have severe anxiety or insomnia that is having a significant effect on your daily life
  • other forms of treatment or support are not suitable or haven’t helped. For example, this may include having cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or making changes to improve your sleep.

These recommendations come from healthcare guidelines produced by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the British National Formulary (BNF). Doctors and other prescribers should follow these guidelines when they offer you any kind of drug.

How long will I have to go on taking my medication?

Healthcare guidelines recommend that you only take sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers for a short time. This is because for most people:

  • they become less effective if you take them for longer period of time
  • they can cause dependence if you take them regularly.

These are the recommendations for how long to take the different types of drug:

  • Take sleeping pills for no longer than three weeks, ideally no longer than a week.
  • Take anti-anxiety drugs for no longer than four weeks, including the withdrawal period.
  • For any of these drugs, you should try to avoid taking them every day.

These are only guidelines for doctors to follow. You can discuss what is best for you with your doctor.

This information was published in April 2021. We will revise it in 2024.

References and bibliography available on request.

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