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Sleeping Pills on Planes

Should you use sleeping pills when you fly?

Q Is it OK to take a sleeping pill during a long flight?

A If you’re a fidgety traveler, a well-chosen sleep medication can help you snooze away part of your trip, says Mary Susan Esther, a sleep physician and 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—helpful for a flight across the country but dicey for a trip from Seattle to Los Angeles.

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

Some people suffer these side effects from sedatives even without alcohol thrown into the mix. If you don’t usually take sleeping pills, Esther suggests running a preflight test of any medication you plan to use. Forty thousand feet up is not the place to discover that sleep medicines aren’t for you.


This article was first published in March 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.