Over-the-counter medications containing diphenhydramine and doxylamine used by older adults to improve sleep
Over-the-counter medications containing diphenhydramine and doxylamine used by older adults to improve sleep
Olufunmilola Abraham 0 1
Loren Schleiden 0 1
Steven M. Albert 0 1
0 Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health , 130 De Soto St., Pittsburgh, PA 15261 , USA
1 Department of Pharmacy and Therapeutics, University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy , 693 Salk Hall, 3501 Terrace St., Pittsburgh, PA 15261 , USA
Background The unintentional misuse of overthe-counter sleep aids among older adults is an important public health problem and a focus of Healthy People 2020. Accordingly, the 2015 Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults recommends that individuals 65 years or older avoid use of diphenhydramine and doxylamine; however, many over-the-counter sleep products contain these active ingredients. Objective To identify the proportion of older adults using an over-thecounter medication containing diphenhydramine or doxylamine, and compare their characteristics with older adults using an over-the-counter medication that does not contain these ingredients. Setting Study participants were recruited from the Community Registry of the Pittsburgh Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center. Method The study sample was taken from a larger survey of 1025 participants on sleep health and over-the-counter sleep medication use conducted from February to April 2015. A subset of 169 participants aged 65 and older reporting taking at least one over-the-counter product to improve sleep within the past 30 days (16.5%) were selected for our analysis on associations between participant characteristics and potentially inappropriate use of over-the-counter sleep medications. Main outcome measure The proportion and characteristics of older adults taking at least one over-thecounter medication containing diphenhydramine or doxylamine. Results Of the 223 over-the-counter sleep medications listed by participants, 115 (52%) contained diphenhydramine or doxylamine. Using the Beers Criteria, we found that more than half of participants (59%) had used a potentially inappropriate over-the-counter medication containing diphenhydramine or doxylamine to improve sleep within the past 30 days. Participants taking at least one diphenhydramine or doxylamine containing medication were less likely to be aware of any safety risks in taking over-the-counter sleep medications than participants not taking these products (38 vs 49%, p = 0.016). Conclusion A majority of older adults in a limited sample from the United States taking an over-the-counter medication to improve sleep are taking a product containing diphenhydramine or doxylamine, both of which are classified as potentially inappropriate for older adults. Awareness of the safety risks of over-the-counter medications and addressing conditions that impact sleep quality could be facilitated through consultation with pharmacists and other healthcare providers.
Beers Criteria; Over-the-counter medications; OTCs; Older adults; Sleep aids; Sleep problems; USA
& Olufunmilola Abraham
Impacts on practice
A large number of adults in the United States
experience sleep difficulties and primarily use OTC
medications to manage this problem.
Older adults, in particular, may be unaware of the
safety risks of OTC sleep medications containing
diphenhydramine and doxylamine.
Consultation with appropriate and accessible health
professionals, such as community pharmacists during
time of purchase, could help to curtail potentially
inappropriate use of OTC sleep medications.
Insufficient and poor quality of sleep is a prevalent health
concern for many adults [1–3], and particularly in the elderly
because of the increased risk of adverse health effects
including hypertension, diabetes, obesity, stroke, and heart
attack . The National Sleep Foundation recommends a
healthy sleep duration of 7–9 h for adults aged 26–64 years,
and 7–8 h of sleep for adults aged 65 years and older . A
recent study found that more than one third of adults have
reported a sleep duration of\7 h, which increases the risk for
several detrimental health conditions and impaired cognitive
functioning [4, 6]. More specifically, 13.7–37.75% of older
adults in international studies reported they had experienced
sleep problems [7–10]. In order to improve sleep and treat
sleep problems, many older adults use over-the-counter
(OTC) medications [11, 12].
Older adults in particular are major consumers of OTC
medications for a variety of indications, and they account
for 35% of OTC medication use in the United States .
A previous study found that the typical older adult in the
United States uses as nearly as many OTC medications as
prescription medications, which greatly increases the
potential for harmful drug–drug interactions . An
increasing number of older adults opt for self-management
of sleep difficulties, and a study reported that 12% of older
adults (C65 years old) in the United States use OTC sleep
medications . Almost half (44%) of older adults in the
United States experience disturbed sleep at least a few
nights each week and frequently use OTC sleep
medications , however this self-care approach may not address
the physiological changes, reductions in health status, loss
of physical function, primary sleep disorders,
psychological influences, or other underlying health conditions which
may be a cause of sleep disturbances .
The unintentional misuse of OTC medications for
improvement of sleep has been shown to be an important
public health problem internationally and in the United
States [18–21], and it is a focus of Healthy People 2020
[4, 22]. Concerns with medication safety have risen due to
older adults’ use of OTC medications containing
diphenhydramine or doxylamine (DIPH/DOX), which the Beers
Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in
Older Adults has deemed to be potentially inappropriate and
unsafe for use in the elderly . The Beers Criteria,
published by the American Geriatrics Society, has been widely
utilized and adapted in studies of potentially inappropriate
medication use by older adults in other countries including
Korea, Japan, Italy, and Spain [24–27]. A study indicated
that older adults were twice as likely as younger adults to use
OTC sleep medications containing antihistamines such as
diphenhydramine or doxylamine for over 20 days .
OTC sleep medications containing DIPH/DOX increase
the risk of hepatic and renal insufficiency, drug interactions,
adverse events, and unintended anticholinergic effects in the
elderly [4, 28]. OTC sleep medications containing DIPH/
DOX are known to have anticholinergic properties that can
result in cognitive impairments, hangover effects, dizziness,
or falls, especially in older adults . Furthermore, many
older adults are concurrently taking prescription medications
with anticholinergic properties such as tricyclic
antidepressants. The combined anticholinergic burden of taking
prescribed medications along with OTC medications containing
DIPH/DOX increases the risk of adverse events and other
unintended negative consequences . Supplements that
can be purchased as OTC sleep aids in the United States such
as melatonin have also been increasingly used more to
manage sleep problems . There is a lack of evidence of
the safety of melatonin for use on a chronic basis, and it is
also considered a prescription drug in some countries .
OTC sleep medications are not intended for long-term use in
managing complicated sleep problems such as insomnia, but
rather for short-term treatment of sleep disturbance or
Older adults rarely discuss sleep complaints with their
healthcare providers or seek counseling from pharmacists
when selecting or using OTC medications for sleep
problems . Healthcare providers and pharmacists are often
unaware of OTC medication use by their patients, which
may lead to duplication of therapies, potentially dangerous
overdosing, and possible drug–drug or drug-disease
interactions. Australian patients with insomnia regarded OTC
sleep aids as safer than prescription sleep aids and felt that
unclear labelling and instructions were leading to
suboptimal use . These misperceptions may be resolved
through discussion with healthcare providers.
Pharmacistprovided direct patient care has demonstrated favorable
therapeutic, safety, and humanistic outcomes across
various healthcare settings , and community pharmacists
are accessible medication experts who may be able to
consult patients about their sleep problems, potential
nonpharmacological interventions, and safe OTC sleep aid use.
Despite the widespread self-treatment with OTC sleep
medications containing DIPH/DOX, the decision-making
and selection process for using these medications has
received very limited research attention.
Ensuring that older adults safely and effectively use or
avoid using OTC sleep medications is critical in order to
minimize potential drug–drug interactions and
unintentional misuse. Nevertheless, we know surprisingly little
about the characteristics of older adults who use potentially
inappropriate medications to address sleep disturbances,
their knowledge of OTC sleep aids, and the safety risks of
the types of products being used.
Aim of the study
The purpose of this study was to explore OTC medication
use by older adults to improve sleep, by identifying the
proportion and characteristics of participants using at least
one OTC medication containing DIPH/DOX with
participants using an OTC medication that does not contain
Ethical approval for this study was granted by the
University of Pittsburgh Institutional Review Board.
The sample for this study was identified from participants
of a previous mail survey on sleep health and use of OTC
sleep medications among older adults from the Pittsburgh
Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center.
The Pepper Community Registry includes over 2000
community-dwelling persons from the Pittsburgh region
aged 60 years and older who have consented to be
contacted for participation in Pepper-approved research
studies. The survey was originally sent via mail to 2064 Pepper
registrants in February 2015. A total of 1025 participants
returned completed surveys, and a subset of 169
participants aged 65 and older who reported taking at least one
OTC sleep medication within the past 30 days (16.5%)
were identified and selected for this study and further
analyses. Informed consent was obtained from study
The mail survey was developed to collect information and
characteristics of sleep quality in older adults, along with
healthcare seeking behaviors including use of treatments or
products used to alleviate sleep problems (primarily OTC
sleep medications). To elicit responses indicating the use of
OTC medications to improve sleep, participants were
asked: ‘‘Do you use any over the counter (OTC)
medications to help you fall asleep or stay asleep (OTC drugs
include Benadryl, Tylenol PM, etc.)?’’ Participants were
also asked about any prescription medications taken to help
fall or stay asleep. The names, frequency of use, knowledge
of safety risks and active ingredients, and satisfaction with
use were collected for all OTC and prescription sleep
medications reported. Survey items relating to consultation
with a healthcare professional about choosing an OTC
product for sleep and overall satisfaction with sleep (very
dissatisfied, dissatisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied,
satisfied, very satisfied) were also collected. Survey
responses were linked to participant demographics and
basic health information collected by the Pepper registry
(see ‘‘Supplementary Material’’). This enabled the
comparison of survey responses to participant demographic
characteristics of interest including age, sex, marital status,
race/ethnicity, and education.
We hypothesized that at least 50% of older adults used a
potentially inappropriate OTC medication containing
DIPH/DOX according to the Beers Criteria, and would be
unaware of OTC medication safety risks . OTC
medications were evaluated for product name, indication(s),
and active ingredient(s), and were categorized according to
the following therapeutic characteristics and indications:
sleep aid, combination sleep aid and pain reliever/fever
reducer, pain reliever/fever reducer, allergy reliever,
herbal, pain reliever/antacid, anticonvulsant/neuropathic pain
reliever/anxiety reliever, vitamins, and dry mouth reliever.
Analyses sought to identify associations between the use of
OTC sleep aids containing DIPH/DOX and demographics,
consultation with healthcare professionals, characteristics
of OTC sleep aid use, health literacy, and the use of
prescription medications to improve sleep (a = 0.05). All
statistical analyses were performed using STATA software
version 13.0 (StataCorp, College Station, TX).
Table 1 shows the baseline characteristics of the sample of
169 participants. Majority of participants were
non-Hispanic White (95%), female (65%), married (58%), and had
more than a 4-year college degree (52%).
Table 1 Baseline characteristics of participants who had used OTC sleep aids in the past 30 days
Did not list any OTC products containing
diphenhydramine or doxylamine
n = 70 (41.4%)
p = 0.779
p = 0.348
p = 0.121
Characteristics of participants using OTC products
As shown in Table 2, more than half (59%) of the 169
survey participants who reported using an OTC sleep aid in
the past 30 days had used at least one OTC medication
containing DIPH/DOX, and 15 participants (9%) reported
taking more than one OTC medication containing DIPH/
DOX. Participants who reported taking at least one OTC
medication containing DIPH/DOX were less likely than
those taking other OTC sleep medications to report being
aware of any safety risks (38 vs 49%, p = 0.016). There
were no significant differences between DIPH/DOX users
and participants taking only OTC medications not
containing DIPH/DOX to improve sleep in terms of consulting
a pharmacist or physician when choosing OTC sleep
medication (28 vs 40%, p = 0.111), experience of side
effects from using OTC sleep aids (15 vs 9%, p = 0.202),
knowledge of the active ingredient in their most recently
used OTC sleep aid (57 vs 43%, p = 0.066), satisfaction
with their OTC sleep aids (41 vs 48%, p = 0.187),
obtaining assistance with reading hospital or pharmacy
materials (16 vs 19%, p = 0.673), difficulty learning about
medical conditions (15 vs 20%, p = 0.427), or using a
prescription medication to help fall or stay asleep (19 vs
26%, p = 0.329). Of the 56 participants who had consulted
a pharmacist or physician when choosing their OTC sleep
medication, the majority had consulted a physician (80%),
with 21% consulting a pharmacist and about 5% reporting
that they consulted a nurse practitioner.
As shown in Table 3, a similar number of men (58%)
and women (59%) reported taking an OTC medication
containing DIPH/DOX; however, a higher percentage of
men (24%) than women (19%) were taking OTC
medications containing DIPH/DOX more than 10 times per
month. A lower proportion of participants over the age of
90 reported taking at least one medication containing
DIPH/DOX (41%) compared to other age groups.
OTC products used to improve sleep
Table 4 describes the 223 products listed by participants
used to help fall or stay asleep, and the majority contained
DIPH/DOX (52%). Very few OTC medications (8%) listed
Table 2 Characteristics of participants using OTC products containing DIPH/DOX
Did you consult your pharmacist or doctor when choosing
this OTC medication for sleep?
If yes (n = 56), who did you consult? (not mutually
Doctor (yes vs no)
Pharmacist (yes vs no)
Nurse practitioner (yes vs no)
Did you experience any side effects from using these over the
counter (OTC) medications?
Do you know the active ingredient(s) contained in your most
recently used OTC medication for sleep?
(missing = 7)
Are you aware of any safety risks in taking OTC
(missing = 4)
How satisfied are you with using this/these OTC sleep
aid(s) to improve your sleep quality?
(missing = 3)
Satisfied (very satisfied—neither nor)
Not satisfied (dissatisfied, very dissatisfied)
How often do you have someone (like a family member,
friend, hospital/clinic worker, or caregiver) help you read
hospital or pharmacy materials?
(missing = 3)
How often do you have problems learning about your
medical condition because of difficulty understanding
written information? (missing = 2)
Do you ever use prescription medications to help
you fall asleep or stay asleep?
Did you experience any side effects from using these
prescription medications? (n = 37)
(missing = 4)
p = 0.111
p = 0.202
p = 0.066
p = 0.016
p = 0.187
p = 0.673
p = 0.427
p = 0.329
p = 0.601
Table 3 OTC DIPH/DOX use by gender and age group
Overall (n = 169)
OTC DIPH/DOX use 99 (58.6)
OTC DIPH/DOX use for more than 10 days per month 35 (20.7)
Female (n = 110)
Male (n = 59)
Female (n = 110)
Male (n = 59)
by participants as being used to help or fall asleep were
determined to be solely classified as sleep aids; rather they
were often combination products or classified in a different
group, such as pain relievers/fever reducers or
antihistamines. The most often-listed OTC medication by
participants was Tylenol PM, whose active ingredients are
diphenhydramine and acetaminophen. While nearly one
third (29%) of OTC medications listed were combination
sleep aid and pain reliever/fever reducers (for example,
Tylenol PM, Advil PM), nearly as many (26%) reported
products were indicated for pain relief/fever reduction, pain
relief/antacid, or anticonvulsant/neuropathic pain relief/
anxiety relief alone (such as, Tylenol, Aspirin). Products
indicated for allergy relief (16%) typically contained
diphenhydramine. Participants also listed herbal products
(20%), 93% of which contained melatonin. Vitamins, dry
mouth relievers, and ‘‘unable to be categorized’’ products
together made up \2% of products listed.
Results from this study suggest that many older adults are
self-managing their sleep problems by taking OTC
medications, many of which are not meant to be taken long-term
by individuals of any age and may be inappropriate for
older adults. Even among our highly educated sample, with
the majority of participants having education beyond a
4-year college degree, 59% of respondents who had used
an OTC product to improve sleep in the past 30 days were
using a sleep medication containing DIPH/DOX.
Furthermore, approximately one in five respondents were using a
sleep medication containing DIPH/DOX more than 10
times in a month. These findings, along with previous
research in the United States and France, suggest that many
individuals are taking sleep aids more frequently or for a
longer period of time than typically recommended by the
healthcare professionals [33, 34].
The most commonly used OTC medications were
combinations of diphenhydramine and a pain reliever or
fever reducer such as Tylenol PM (acetaminophen and
diphenhydramine), Advil PM (ibuprofen and
diphenhydramine), and Aleve PM (naproxen and diphenhydramine).
Products containing only DIPH/DOX as an active
ingredient were also listed, such as Benadryl, which is meant to
relieve allergy or common cold symptoms, and ZzzQuil,
which is specifically targeted towards helping a person fall
and stay asleep. Diphenhydramine has potentially harmful
effects on older adults including risk of motor impairment
 and anticholinergic effects [36, 37]; its use is also
associated with falls . Diphenhydramine may be
especially dangerous in older adults due to its longer
halflife compared younger individuals [39–41]. Another safety
risk of using diphenhydramine at night is the presence of a
residual sedative effect the morning after use .
In addition to OTC products containing DIPH/DOX,
participants listed herbal products, most of which contained
melatonin, as being used for improving sleep. The United
States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers
these products to be dietary supplements and therefore
distinct from OTC sleep medications. Without FDA
regulation, there are concerns with ingredients in melatonin
sold over the counter with a recent study finding certain
brands containing anywhere from 1% of melatonin claimed
on the label to more 47%, with some brands containing
higher amounts of arsenic than the recommended limit
. While melatonin has been shown to be well-tolerated
in clinical trials in older patients and safe for short term
use, there is little evidence to support its effectiveness in
treating primary and secondary sleep disorders [44–46].
Participants also listed other OTC products taken to help
fall or stay asleep, including many products that do not
contain any hypnotic active ingredients and are not
necessarily intended to be taken to improve sleep. The
prevalent use of these products leads us to believe that pain
or discomfort caused by other conditions is negatively
Table 4 Group, active ingredients, and name of OTC products listed as helping to fall or stay asleep
Combination sleep aid and pain reliever/fever reducer Diphenhydramine/acetaminophen
Pain reliever/fever reducer
OTC product name
impacting sleep in our sample of older adults. Persistent
pain is another potential area for intervention by healthcare
professionals, such as community pharmacists, who could
provide counseling to discuss avoidance of combination
sleep aid/pain relievers with older adult patients and refer
them to resources for appropriate pain management.
Participants who used OTC products not containing
DIPH/DOX were otherwise fairly similar on most
measured factors to those who used DIPH/DOX products,
with the exception that participants using DIPH/DOX
products were less aware of any safety risks in taking OTC
sleep medications. This association may suggest the
possibility that older adults would decrease their use of certain
inappropriate OTC sleep medications with increased
awareness of the associated safety risks. Consultation with
a healthcare professional such as a physician or community
pharmacist could facilitate this awareness in older adult
patients. Most of the participants in this study did not
consult a healthcare professional when choosing an OTC
medication for sleep problems, and if they did it was
primarily a physician, not a pharmacist. Community
pharmacists are easily accessible where most OTC sleep
medications are sold and purchased without older adults
having to make an appointment, and can engage these
patients in discussions about their sleep issues, selection of
OTC products, or avoidance of unsafe use . A
community pharmacist could suggest alternative sleep hygiene
modifications or refer patients to a physician so that sleep
problems could be addressed under medical supervision.
While a patient may choose an OTC product to treat
their sleep problems, sleep disturbances may be caused by
underlying conditions such as depression, anxiety, pain, or
sleep apnea. Only treating sleep problems may leave these
potentially serious conditions unresolved. Consultation by
community pharmacists with older adult patients could
elicit underlying conditions which manifested through
sleep problems and then refer patients to their physicians,
rather than the individual self-managing these symptoms.
In Australia for instance, sedating antihistamines such as
DIPH/DOX are classified as ‘‘Pharmacist Only
Medicines,’’ and their purchase requires interaction with a
pharmacist . A study using simulated patients found that
Australian pharmacists typically asked about problems
related to sleep and provided adequate counseling when a
product was supplied . A similar model incorporating
required interactions with pharmacists in order to obtain
certain OTC sleep aids may be beneficial if implemented in
the United States. In a recent study of medication therapy
management (MTM) intervention, community pharmacists
were found to be effective in reducing the use of fall-risk
inducing medications (FRIDs) among older adults, as over
75% of older adults receiving the MTM intervention
stopped using all FRIDs . These study findings indicate
that community pharmacists can have the potential to
positively influence safe use of medications by older adults
in other areas, particularly potentially inappropriate OTC
sleep medication use.
The prevalence of unhealthy sleep duration in one third of
adults  may be contributing to the rise in use of OTC sleep
medications. The pervasiveness of sleep disturbance
indicates that it is important for healthcare professionals,
particularly community pharmacists, to consistently assess
patients for sleep concerns, educate older adults about
behavior changes to improve sleep hygiene, and emphasize
safe and effective use of OTC sleep medications. Since older
adults often do not discuss sleep problems with healthcare
professionals, discussions around sleep quality and
management of sleep problems should be included in regular
health assessments and patient care in clinical practice.
This study was limited by its cross-sectional design
because we collected data at one point in time. Our sample,
including registry members who were primarily white and
had a high level of education, is not representative of all
older adults. This study was also conducted in one urban
region of Western Pennsylvania in the United States, thus
results may not be generalizable to other populations in
different countries. Selection bias may have impacted our
results, as only those who voluntarily filled out and
returned the survey via mail were able to be included in the
study. We relied on participants to remember and
accurately report OTC medication use which could vary due to
possibility of recall bias or inaccuracy of responses to
survey items. Moreover, our list of elicited OTC sleep
medications contains many products not designed to
facilitate sleep. Other methods, such as semi-structured
interviews, could further clarify which products were being
taken and for what specific purposes.
Study findings indicate the proportion of OTC medications
used by older adults to improve sleep and potential for
unsafe use. A majority of participants reported taking an
OTC sleep medication containing DIPH/DOX, which the
Beers Criteria has classified as potentially inappropriate for
use among older adults. OTC medications are also being
taken to relieve the symptoms of other conditions such as
pain that would contribute to trouble falling or staying
asleep. Many older adults are unaware of the safety risks of
OTC products containing DIPH/DOX, which sheds light on
the importance of community pharmacists and other
healthcare professionals educating them on appropriate
sleep hygiene and safe use of medications.
Acknowledgements The authors thank the members of the
Community Registry of the Pittsburgh Claude D. Pepper Older Americans
Independence Center that participated in this study. We acknowledge
Amanda Brothers, Research Specialist, University of Pittsburgh,
School of Pharmacy for editorial assistance in preparing this
Funding This study was funded by the Inaugural AcademyHealth
New Investigator Small Grant Program.
Conflicts of interest Authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://crea
tivecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were
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