Prescription sleeping pills UK
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Prescription Sleeping Pills: 7 most commonly used drugs

In one of my previous posts I analysed prescribing patterns for antidepressant drugs in UK, where sharp increase of antidepressant use in UK is seen. In today’s post I will be looking at prescribing statistics for prescription sleeping pills, used for treatment of insomnia. Insomnia can be one of the symptoms of depression.

Does sharp increase of antidepressant prescribing correlate with increase in the use of prescription sleeping tablets in recent years?

Prescribing data used for this review was taken from

Prescription sleeping pills: what are the recommendations for insomnia treatment?

Pharmacological treatment is not recommended as first line treatment of insomnia.

Hypnotics, the main class of drugs used in treatment of insomnia, are only recommended after appropriate hygiene advice is given to patients including CBT approach. However, if insomnia is severe for example causing distress or affecting day to day life short term (less than 4 weeks) pharmacological treatment may be recommended (NICE, 2015).

The main prescription drugs recommended for treatment insomnia include (ibid):

  • Short-acting benzodiazepines — temazepam, loprazolam, lormetazepam.
  • Non-benzodiazepines (the ‘z-drugs‘) — zopiclone, zolpidem, and zaleplon (all are short acting).

Tolerance (reduced effectiveness) to hypnotics can develop rapidly. Hypnotics may also cause dependence, rebound insomnia (symptoms of insomnia coming back after treatment is stopped) and a withdrawal syndrome (BNF, 2019). Because of that a short term use is only recommended.

Prescription sleeping pills: statistics

Prescription sleeping pills

1. Zopiclone: most common prescription sleeping pill

Zopiclone is the most commonly prescribed hypnotic drug for sleeping with 5.2 mln prescriptions issued in 2018. Zopiclone is considerably more popular than any other sleeping drug available on prescription. Over last 4 years there were some fluctuations in prescribing of Zopiclone, however since 2014 this number was always over 5 mln prescriptions per year and no significant decrease in prescribing can be seen.

2. Temazepam

Second most commonly prescribed drug for sleeping is Temazepam with 0.99 mln presciptions issued for this drug in 2018. Prescribing of temazepam decreased significantly over last four years. This is manly due to reclassification of temazepam in 2015. Temazepam became Schedule 3 controlled drug in 2015.

3. Melatonin

Third most commonly prescribed drug for insomnia is Melatonin. Melatonin is does not belong to a hypnotic class of drugs, instead it is classified as a hormonal therapy. Melatonin is the only drug in the group of sleeping tablets where prescribing is on increase. The number of prescriptions issued for melatonin doubled since 2014 and last year this number was 0.9 mln prescriptions. Melatonin is available commonly over the counter without prescription in US, however in the UK it is a prescription drug, and the only formulation available (Circadin 2 mg prolonged-release tablets) is licensed for the short-term treatment of insomnia in patients who are aged 55 or over.

None of the drugs above made it into Top 15 most prescribed drugs in UK in 2018.

Hypnotics prescribing 2014-2018 (items)

Overall there is no significant changes in prescribing of hypnotics for treatment of insomnia in last 4 years. Temazepam prescribing decreased significantly, but this was compensated with increase of a Melatonin prescribing.

This is a broad overview of prescribing of sleeping drugs in UK. Some drugs line Diazepam were not included in this review. Diazepam is commonly prescribed drug in UK with 4.9 mln prescription issued in 2018. Diazepam can be prescribed for insomnia associated with anxiety, however its licensed for management on number of other conditions including severe anxiety, muscle spasm, cerebral palsy and others. Diazepam is not routinely recommended for treatment of insomnia, therefore analysis of its use as sleeping drugs is beyond the scope of this post.

Similarly, antidepressants drugs such as amitriptyline and mirtazapine are commonly used for treatment of depression where sedation is required. Both drugs were excluded from this analysis.


I am a community pharmacist working in UK. I blog about drugs, health and pharmacy.

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