Side Effects of Zolpidem Abuse
Is Zolpidem Harmful?
Zolpidem is a hypnotic, or sleep-promoting substance, found in some prescription insomnia medications, including the sleeping pill Ambien 1.
The sedating effects can be intense and risky for the user, even sending them to the emergency room.
As a sedative-hypnotic substance, zolpidem can impart a sense of euphoria and relaxation in some of its users 2. Street names include “A-minus,” “zombie pills,” and “no-go pills.”
Those under the influence of Ambien are sometimes called “Ambien zombies,” reflecting the reputation zolpidem users have of being extremely drowsy, having poor body coordination, and partaking in activities for which they later have no recollection.
The sedating effects can be intense and risky for the user, even sending them to the emergency room. In fact, in 2010, more than 64,000 ER visits involved zolpidem 2. Users also run a high risk of developing a dependence to the drug, which can quickly escalate into a full-blown addiction 3, 4.
Zolpidem’s Short-Term Effects
When a person takes zolpidem, certain kinds of neuronal activity in their brain is reduced, allowing for increased relaxation and helping people suffering from insomnia get to sleep.
In some cases—especially at high doses—the user may feel a sense of euphoria, or increased happiness 3. These pleasurable effects are the reason many people use zolpidem non-medically—in essence, the “Ambien high” can feel really good.
Short-term effects of zolpidem use include 1,2:
- Disrupted balance.
Some users may experience short-term effects that run counter to the expected sedation. One study examined a set of users that did not get tired after taking zolpidem—in fact, a couple of the subjects even experienced stimulating effects 5. Findings like this serve to highlight the many different ways that people can react to drugs, especially sleeping pills. Sometimes, these reactions are dangerous for the user.
Adverse Side Effects
Ambien side effects range from mildly unpleasant to medically dangerous. Some common short-term side effects include, but are not limited to 1,2,6:
- Joint pain.
- Muscle aches.
- Dry mouth or throat.
- Appetite changes.
- Abdominal pain.
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as constipation or diarrhea.
- Uncontrollable body movements.
- Behavioral changes.
- Unusual dreams or nightmares.
Sometimes the sedative effects can last through to the next day, even through overnight abstinence1.
Memory problems are another potential side effect of using zolpidem1, 6. Some users may do things while sleeping that they can’t remember, such as preparing food, driving, or having sex.
The effects are amplified to extremely dangerous levels when zolpidem is taken in combination with other central nervous system depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines, or prescription painkillers 2.
Can You Overdose On Sleeping Pills?
Yes, overdosing is a risk of zolpidem abuse.
The most dangerous side effects of use are often related to overdose, and they include falling deeply unconscious for a period of time (coma) and slowed or shallow breathing 1.
Long-Term Effects of Abusing Zolpidem
When taken over long periods of time, zolpidem’s effects can take their toll on the brain. Beyond the short-term side effects, zolpidem has been known to cause psychological issues in long-term users, including 1:
- Impaired memory.
- Sense of dissociation from the body.
- Suicidal thoughts.
The Risk of Dependence
Ambien is intended for short-term use only, and long-term users run the risk of becoming dependent and eventually addicted 3, 4. A user has become physically dependent when they must continue taking the drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Dependence often goes hand in hand with addiction, which is the continued use of a drug despite negative consequences.
As zolpidem users take the substance, their brains become accustomed to the drug’s presence. This means the user may need to take the drug in higher or more frequent doses in order to get the same effects. This is known as tolerance and it closely tied to dependence.
A person who is developing a zolpidem dependence may experience:
- Unpleasant physical feelings when not on zolpidem.
- Disturbing thoughts when abstinent.
- Cravings for zolpidem.
Zolpidem withdrawal often begins with the return of insomnia 3.In some cases, users experience anxiety or seizures, but the exact it’s difficult to predict the full range of symptoms that will arise during withdrawal 3. In any case, it is important to understand that undergoing detox and withdrawal alone may be dangerous due to the risk of distressing psychological symptoms and the possibility of seizures. Professional help can keep those in withdrawal safe, by providing appropriate medical and mental health interventions, should adverse events arise over the course of detox. Therapy and counseling may also help a recovering user find ways to get a good night’s sleep without the use of zolpidem.
Zolpidem Withdrawal Symptoms Can Include:
- Mood swings
- Abdominal cramps
- and more..
Detox from zolpidem is only the first step in recovery from addiction. After detox, users may move on to either inpatient or outpatient treatment:
- Inpatient treatment involves working through recovery in a hospital-based or residential treatment facility. These programs provide a sober safe space for recovering users to work through treatment away from the stress and triggers of their home lives.
- Outpatient treatment is a great option for people that can’t afford to take time away from home and work life. These programs involve regular check-ins at a facility for treatment, but the recovering user can continue to operate in their day-to-day life relatively unimpeded. In more severe cases of addiction, or should an individual’s outpatient recovery progress be more complicated than expected, inpatient treatment may be necessary.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2015). Zolpidem. Medline Plus.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (May 1, 2013). Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Reactions Involving the Insomnia Medication Zolpidem. Rockville, MD.
- Victorri-Vigneau, C., Dailly, E., Veyrac, G., & Jolliet, P. (2007). Evidence of zolpidem abuse and dependence: results of the French Centre for Evaluation and Information on Pharmacodependence (CEIP) network survey. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 64(2). 198-209.
- Victorri-Vigneau, C., … & Jolliet, P. (2014). An update on zolpidem abuse and dependence. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 33(1). 15-23.
- Courtet, P., Pignay, V., Castelnau, D., & Boulenger, J.P. (1999). Abuse of and dependence on zolpidem: a report of seven cases. Encephale, 25(6). 652-657.
- Food and Drug Administration. (2013). Ambien CR. Medication Guide.