In Clearbrook Treatment Centers Massachusetts, Prescription Drug Abuse

Sedative and hypnotic drugs are among the most commonly abused substances in the United States. Both may include prescription drugs (in which they act together to create sedative-hypnotics) as well as illicit drugs. While some people develop addictions because they misuse or abuse their medications, others unknowingly begin their addictions by experimenting. The experts at our Massachusetts rehab are sharing a comparison of sedative vs. hypnotic drugs and why they’re dangerous when abused.

What Are Sedatives and Hypnotics?

Below, we’re diving into the pharmacological factors of hypnotics and sedatives, shedding light on their distinct mechanisms of action, therapeutic applications, and potential side effects. A comprehensive understanding of these factors is essential for healthcare practitioners to make informed decisions when prescribing these medications to address anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances.


Sedatives are a group of prescription drugs that are used to relax the central nervous system (CNS) and treat conditions like anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and sleep disorders. Also known as tranquilizers or CNS depressants, sedatives include drug classes like benzodiazepines, barbiturates, non-benzo sedative-hypnotics, antihistamines, anesthetics, opioids, and even herbs.

Common types of sedatives include alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), and diazepam (Valium). The original sedative before these medications were created was alcohol, which continues to be one of the most commonly abused substances of all time.

The first medical sedatives were bromides, which were discovered in 1826 by Antoine-Jérôme Balard and Carl Löwig.1 Although they were effective in producing relaxation and calm, the toxicity of bromides was eventually discovered, and they were replaced with barbiturates instead.

However, barbiturates were also discovered to produce harmful side effects, including physical and psychological dependence, contributing to another hunt for a safer sedative. Benzodiazepines were eventually marketed in the 1950s as medications that were entirely safe and did not cause the same side effects as their predecessors. It’s now clear, though, that these drugs are also habit-forming and can cause addiction in long-time users.

Long-term abuse of sedatives can lead to a variety of problems. Some common side effects of sedatives include:

  • Sleepiness and drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Impaired depth or distance perception
  • Slowed reaction time and impaired reflexes
  • Slowed breathing
  • Decreased sense of or ability to feel pain
  • Difficulties concentrating or thinking
  • Slurred speed or difficulties speaking

Because sedatives are addictive, many people are unable to stop using them on their own. Users may continue to abuse sedatives, increasing their risk of experiencing long-term effects like memory loss, depression, anxiety, liver failure, and addiction.

Our Massachusetts drug rehab offers a medically monitored detox that slowly weans patients off of these drugs and safely gets them through the withdrawal process. This is a beneficial form of treatment that can make the recovery process much smoother and safer.


Medications that promote sleep are hypnotics, and these include both prescription and over-the-counter medicines. These drugs are used to treat insomnia and other sleeping disorders, and the over-the-counter versions are often used to help people with colds or other conditions fall asleep.

Hypnotics include drug classes like benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepine receptor agonists, melatonin receptor agonists, antidepressants, and orexin receptor agonists. Common prescription sleeping pills include Lunesta, Sonata, Ambien, Rozerem, and Halcion. Medications like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and doxylamine (Unisom) are also commonly used over-the-counter hypnotics.

The first hypnotic was chloral hydrate, and it was synthesized in 1832 by German chemist Justus von Liebig but wasn’t categorized as a hypnotic until 1869 by German pharmacologist Oskar Liebreich.2 Despite their pros, hypnotics also have a potential for abuse and can cause dependence and addiction.

Recently, more people have been abusing over-the-counter hypnotics like Benadryl by purposely overdosing on it or mixing it with alcohol or soda to create a drink called “lean.” Even a new trend on the social media app TikTok involved purposely drinking large doses of Benadryl to experience hallucinations.

Hypnotics can be extremely dangerous and can cause addiction. Some common side effects of hypnotics include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Blurred vision
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Rebound insomnia
  • Hallucinations
  • Confusion

More serious side effects like sleep paralysis, suicidal thoughts, and falling asleep during activities like driving can occur in people who abuse hypnotics. Our prescription drug treatment can help individuals who have become addicted to these drugs recover and learn how to live a life without them.

Comparing Sedative vs. Hypnotic Drugs: Differences & Similarities

Sedatives and hypnotics are both classes of medications that affect the central nervous system (CNS) to induce calm or sleep. However, the main difference between sedatives and hypnotics is that sedatives primarily target anxiety and tension reduction, whereas hypnotics are specifically used to induce and improve sleep. Below are additional distinctions between these substances.

Primary Purpose

  • Hypnotics: Drugs that are considered hypnotics are designed to induce and sustain sleep, addressing conditions like insomnia.
  • Sedatives: Unlike hypnotics, sedatives are aimed at calming anxiety and reducing nervous system overactivity without inducing sleep.

Mechanism of Action

  • Hypnotics: Act on specific receptors in the brain to promote drowsiness and initiate sleep.
  • Sedatives: Depress CNS activity, resulting in relaxation and reduced anxiety.

Therapeutic Uses

  • Hypnotics: Prescribed for individuals with sleep disorders, especially insomnia, to facilitate sleep.
  • Sedatives: Administered to manage symptoms of anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and acute anxiety episodes.

Effect on Sleep Patterns

  • Hypnotics: Aim to normalize sleep patterns by improving sleep initiation and maintenance.
  • Sedatives: These generally do not have a direct impact on sleep patterns and are more focused on reducing anxiety-related symptoms.

Dosage and Timing

  • Hypnotics: Typically administered in the evening or at bedtime to induce sleep.
  • Sedatives: Can be taken throughout the day to manage anxiety symptoms, with doses adjusted based on individual needs.

Side Effects

  • Hypnotics: Common side effects include daytime drowsiness, dizziness, and the potential for dependence or withdrawal with prolonged use.
  • Sedatives: Side effects may include sedation, impaired coordination, and a risk of tolerance or addiction over time.

Examples of Medications

  • Hypnotics: Zolpidem, eszopiclone, temazepam, triazolam.
  • Sedatives: Benzodiazepines (e.g., diazepam, lorazepam), non-benzodiazepine anxiolytics (e.g., buspirone).

Regardless of their differences, both hypnotics and sedatives have a high potential for abuse and can cause addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with drug abuse and needs help, call Clearbrook Treatment Centers now at 570-536-9621 to learn more about our Massachusetts substance abuse treatment.


  1. RSC – Bromine
  2. NCBI – The history of barbiturates a century after their clinical introduction

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