The sleep-aid Ambien (generic name: zolpidem) is a prescription medication used in the treatment of insomnia in adults 1. It works by slowing down brain activity to help users fall and stay asleep.
Zolpidem is similar in structure and effects to other sleep aids like Sonata and Lunesta 2. All of these fall under the class of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics and function as CNS depressants 3,4. These substances all work to slow down or depress the central nervous system (CNS) by disrupting the normal activity that takes place in the brain and the spinal cord 2. Examples of other sedative drugs include the barbiturates (e.g., phenobarbital) and benzodiazpeines (e.g., Valium). Some refer to Ambien and similar, non-benzodiazepine hypnotic medications as “z-drugs” because of the letter “z” common throughout their respective chemical names (e.g., zolpidem, zaleplon, eszopiclone).
Ambien and other sedatives produce their effects by interacting with a neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). In the brain, Ambien attaches to many of the same areas in the brain that benzodiazepines do. This binding increases the activity of GABA, which slows and limits brain activity 2. However, in most instances, Ambien rarely achieves the same intensity of effects that benzos produce. Instead, they elicit, on average 4:
- A shorter duration of action.
- Fewer lasting effects during the day.
Ambien is thought to have a lower risk of abuse and dependence compared to benzodiazepines; however, these drugs are not without abuse potential. In fact, there is the risk of people abusing Ambien and similar sleep aids—for example by taking excessive amounts and/or snorting them—with scary consequences. This risk increases in those with a history of substance use or mental health (co-occurring) disorders 4.
Is Snorting Ambien Dangerous?
Someone looking to feel Ambien’s effects more rapidly or intensely may crush the pills and snort the powder. Whether the user is snorting the pills to get high, hallucinate, or just enhance the sleep-inducing effects 2,5, taking the drug this way constitutes substance abuse and is dangerous. It is never advisable to use any medication in ways other than prescribed 1. Whenever the route of administration is changed, the drug’s effects on the brain and body are changed, as well, and the risks to the user increase 5.
In the case of Ambien, the tablet should only be consumed orally because the medication inside is designed to be processed and released slowly into the body through the digestive system 12. Snorted substances take another route. It begins with the drug being absorbed into the blood stream from the mucus membranes in the nose 12. At this point, the drug can travel throughout the rest of the body and to the brain 6.
The user may experience a number of adverse reactions, dangerous levels of sedation, or even overdose.
The danger with this process is that snorting Ambien will increase the amount of medication released at one time 5. The user will experience an effect that is stronger and quicker acting than taking the substance orally 5,12. Crushing and snorting the medication can produce effects that overwhelm the body, and the user may experience a number of adverse reactions, dangerous levels of sedation, or even overdose. If you or someone you love is suffering from an inability to stop using Ambien, you can help today with one confidential call to 1-888-744-0069Who Answers?.
Ambien has many side effects that may present in those who take the medication as advised. However, for those who abuse the drug by snorting or injecting, these effects are likely to appear more frequently and intensely. If you are snorting zolpidem, you may experience a multitude of amplified side effects that include 1,5:
- Feeling sedated, drowsy, or tired.
- Dizziness and lightheadedness.
- Memory problems.
- Problems walking and maintaining balance.
- Appetite changes.
- Constipation or diarrhea.
- Strange or intense dreams.
- Heartburn, pain, and discomfort in the stomach.
- Pain or numbness throughout the body.
Dangerous side effects include 1:
- Skin problems like rashes and hives.
- Swelling of the face or throat.
- Trouble breathing and swallowing/feeling that the throat is closing.
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain and pounding heartbeat.
- Problems with vision.
Other Effects of Ambien
Abuse of Ambien can also trigger and/or exacerbate existing mental health symptoms and related behaviors, such as 5:
- Depression with thoughts of self-injury or suicide.
- Anxiety and restlessness.
- Feeling odd or unlike oneself.
- Increase in risky behaviors due to lowered fear and inhibitions.
One of the most unique and disconcerting effects of Ambien use is the emergence of “complex behaviors” while under the drug's influence. Users may partake in activities while asleep and not remember doing so the next morning. Such complex – and potentially risky – behaviors can include 5,11:
- Having sex.
In addition to Ambien’s side effects, snorting any substance on a continuing basis can lead to extensive damage to the nasal cavity, mouth, air passages and sinus network, including 7,8:
- Death of tissue in the septum resulting in holes or tearing.
- Decay of the soft palate.
- Loss of sense of smell.
- Pain in the ear and face.
- Trouble swallowing.
- Sinus congestion.
- Runny nose.
- Swelling of the face.
Can Snorting Ambien Cause an Overdose?
Snorting Ambien or otherwise using at increased doses can intensify its CNS depressant actions, which can lead to an overdose. This risk of overdose builds when Ambien is combined with other sedating drugs such as 2:
- Alcohol and alcoholic beverages.
- Benzodiazepines and barbiturates.
- Some types of over-the-counter medications, like cold and allergy meds (e.g., some antihistamines, dextromethorphan).
Overdosing on Ambien is dangerous and, in extreme situations, potentially lethal. Ambien overdose is a growing concern—the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that there were approximately 28,000 visits to emergency rooms in 2008 alone that involved the adverse effects of Ambien use (a rate that more than doubled from 2004) 3.
The signs of overdose are 1,4:
- Extreme sleepiness.
- Dangerously slowed or stopped breathing.
- Slurred speech.
- Marked loss of coordination.
- Loss of consciousness.
Nonfatal overdose symptoms often resolve within 6 hours after consumption. Some overdose patients can receive a medication to reverse effects of acute intoxication and overdose called flumazenil 4. This substance is primarily used to treat benzodiazepine overdose but has been shown to be effective in treating overdose from sleep aids like Ambien as well 4.
Signs That Someone is Addicted
Those abusing Ambien may display certain telltale behaviors commonly seen as part of the larger issue of addiction, or substance use disorder. A primary indicator of addiction is the persistent use of Ambien even when it causing or could be reasonably anticipated to lead to negative consequences 9. Other signs include 9:
- Taking more and more of the substance over time.
- Unsuccessfully trying to stop taking the drug.
- Spending more time, effort, and money getting and using the drug.
- Escalating conflicts with loved ones.
- Experiencing more difficulty maintaining responsibilities at work, home, and school.
- Worsening mental health or physical health symptoms.
Certain physical signs may indicate that someone you love is abusing Ambien by snorting it. These signs of abuse include:
- Sniffing or wiping nose often.
- Powder on face, hands, or clothes.
- Tools like straws and mirrors that may be used when crushing and snorting Ambien.
Getting Help for Addiction
To end their addiction, people abusing Ambien may attempt to quit abruptly. This can be very challenging and problematic, though, as ending use can bring about withdrawal symptoms. The symptoms will present in a way similar to alcohol withdrawal and may include symptoms like 1,4:
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Increased sweating.
- Tachycardia (raised heart rate).
- Trouble sleeping despite being tired.
- Increased crying.
- Strong cravings for more Ambien.
- Higher levels of anxiety and panic.
Withdrawal symptoms can peak after 5 days 4. This amount of time with strong cravings and uncomfortable symptoms can be difficult to endure and often precipitates a relapse. To break this cycle, professional treatment can be very helpful. A period of medically supervised detoxification can allow the individual to experience withdrawal in a safe, controlled environment while under medical care 4,10. Medical supervision is often of paramount importance for individuals with long-standing sedative abuse histories, given the number of significant risks associated with the acute sedative withdrawal syndrome.
Successfully traversing the withdrawal process is difficult, but it shouldn’t signal the end of recovery efforts. Some form of ongoing, professionally curated substance abuse treatment after detox can make all the difference in terms of maintaining recovery and avoiding relapse. Across settings like in-facility, outpatient, and longer-term residential treatment, the individual will participate in a variety of behavioral therapies to continue their drug-free lifestyle. Behavioral therapy options include 4:
- MI (Motivational Interviewing) — Focuses on strengthening an individual’s motivation to end substance use and embrace recovery.
- Behavioral modification and Cognitive-behavioral therapy — Works to identify stressors before building coping skills to limit the negative effects.
- Relapse prevention — Gathers information related to triggers of use and ways to avoid them in the future to promote sustained abstinence.
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- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2016). Prescription Depressant Medications.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2010). Prescription Drug Abuse.
- Weaver, M. F. (2015). Prescription Sedative Misuse and Abuse. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 247–256.
- Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. (n.d.). Zolpidem Tartrate.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2007). The Neurobiology of Drug Addiction.
- Alexander, D., Alexander, K., & Valentino, J. (2012). Intranasal Hydrocodone-Acetaminophen Abuse Induced Necrosis of the Nasal Cavity and Pharynx. The Laryngoscope, 122(11), 2378–2381.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). DrugFacts: Cocaine.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
- Dolder C., Nelson M. Hypnosedative-Induced Complex Behaviours: Incidence, Mechanisms and Management. CNS Drugs. 2008;22(12),1021-36.
- National Institute of Health. (2010). The Brain: Understanding Neurobiology.