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Healthy Traveler: Sleeping Pills on Flights

Sleeping off airplane travel using pills can work, but only if you do some research first.

Q Is it OK to take a sleeping pill during a long flight?
If you’re a fidgety traveler, a well-chosen sleep medication can help you snooze away part of your plane trip, says Mary Susan Esther, a sleep physician and former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

But flier beware. “You could arrive at your destination in a fog,” she says. A single five-milligram pill of a short-acting prescription drug such as Sonata (generic name: zaleplon) would work for about four hours, Esther says—fine for a cross-country flight but dicey for a trip from Seattle to Los Angeles.

A five-milligram pill of the longer-acting Ambien (aka zolpidem, also sold by prescription) can keep you dozing for six to eight hours, enough to make a journey to Bali more bearable. But if you decide to take a sleeping pill, skip the hard stuff from the beverage cart; a drug-alcohol combo could trigger confusion or even sleepwalking.

Some people suffer these effects from sedatives even without alcohol. If you don’t usually take sleeping pills, Esther suggests running preflight tests of any medication you use.


This article was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.