Medically reviewed by:
Dr. Joshua M. Gleason, M.D.
SA Content Team
Table of Contents
Understanding Ambien Abuse
Ambien is the brand name of the sleep medication zolpidem, a sedative-hypnotic drug prescribed for the treatment of insomnia. As Ambien abuse can occur fairly quickly, it is recommended that patients only take the drug for two weeks or less. Taking the medication for longer will produce a tolerance to the drug’s effects, which often leads users to start misusing the drug by taking it in larger than recommended doses.
Rates of Ambien abuse rose in the early 2000s, and adverse reactions to the drug have likewise risen, with Ambien-related emergency room visits increasing by almost 220%, from 6,111 in 2005 to 19,487 in 2010. Considering the risk of addiction and overdose, it is very important not to misuse Ambien or to take drugs that have been prescribed to someone else. Ambien and other sedatives and sedative-hypnotics can cause addiction when abused as well as severe side effects that are much more likely to occur in someone who is taking the medication in large doses.
Signs and Symptoms of Ambien Abuse
Ambien’s main effect is drowsiness, which is why doctors urge patients to only take it before bed. It is dangerous to drive or perform other activities requiring concentration and alertness after taking Ambien It is also dangerous to fight against the drowsiness created by the drug, as this creates a feeling of euphoria that encourages misuse and addiction.
Even when taken as directed, Ambien has many potential side effects, all of which become more likely and more serious when the drug is misused. These side effects include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Strange dreams
- Coordination problems
- Memory impairment
- Parasomnias such as driving, eating, or performing other actions while asleep and unaware of behavior
- Experiencing hallucinations and abnormal thoughts after waking up from an Ambien-induced sleep. These issues can become even more severe when a person abuses the drug, possibly leading to psychological problems
Doctors usually try to discourage patients from taking the drug for a long period of time because dependence can develop. Once it does, abuse is more likely to occur, as individuals will feel like they need Ambien in order to fall asleep every night. They may also enjoy the way they feel while on the drug, or experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia and tremors when they attempt to quit taking the medication.
Other signs that someone you know may be abusing Ambien include:
- Lack of interest in things that used to matter to them
- Memory problems
- Changes in appetite and sleeping patterns
- Unexplained mood changes
- Blurred vision
- Constantly seeming sedated and tired
- Sleep walking, eating, or other actions while asleep
Dangers of Ambien Abuse
Drugs like Ambien can worsen existing depression or even cause depressed feelings in those who take it for a prolonged period of time. This can lead to suicidal thoughts and other self-harming behavior. Ambien, like other CNS depressants, can also cause a person’s breathing to slow considerably, which can be dangerous. Those who drink while taking the drug and/or take it in large doses are at an even greater risk of overdose, which can lead to brain damage, coma, and death.
Ambien dependence and withdrawal symptoms
People who take the drug consistently, even as directed, can become dependent on Ambien, and the withdrawal symptoms that result from abrupt discontinuation can be severe. In more serious cases, psychological issues like delirium and hallucinations occur, and rarely, a person may experience seizures.
Common symptoms of Ambien withdrawal include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach cramps
- Uncontrolled crying
- Panic attacks
Signs of an Ambien Overdose
Large doses or combinations of Ambien and other drugs, including alcohol, can be lethal. Even prescribed doses can result in a variety of side effects, including confusion, hallucinations, balance problems, muscle tremors, and sleepwalking. Ambien overdose effects can progress to inadequate breathing, slow heartbeat, altered levels of consciousness up to and including unconsciousness, and death. Ambien overdose symptoms can vary depending on dosage and what other drugs were used.
As with other overdoses, calling 911 for emergency medical assistance is the best thing you can do if you think someone has overdosed on Ambien or another form of zolpidem. Provide as much information as you can to the 911 operator and follow their instructions. If the person is breathing well, turn them on their side to help prevent inhalation of stomach contents if they vomit. There is no antidote for Ambien overdose.
Both overdose and withdrawal can be managed with Flumazenil, a benzodiazepine receptor antagonist used to counteract the effects of sedatives.
Ambien can become addictive, especially if a person uses it consistently. Over time, their use will no longer be voluntary, and they will require more and more of the drug in order to be satisfied. People who become addicted to prescription drugs can no longer enjoy the other areas of their lives and instead will only feel good when they are using.
This leads to dangerous Ambien abuse, which can be deadly, especially when the drug is taken in high doses and in combination with alcohol. Furthermore, long-term abusers of prescription drugs sometimes turn to illicit substances when they are no longer able to obtain prescriptions from their doctor, or when increased tolerance drives them to need more potent substances to get high.
The best way to put an end to your substance abuse, especially if it has become unmanageable, is to seek professional help.
Am I Addicted to Ambien?
How can you know if you are already addicted to Ambien? It can help to talk to your doctor, but ask yourself these questions first to see if you are exhibiting any of the classic signs of addiction.
- Do I feel I need to use Ambien every day?
- Do I think about using even when I’m not?
- Do I make excuses for myself to take the drug?
- Have I developed a tolerance to the effects of Ambien?
- Do I take higher doses or combine Ambien with other substances so I can feel a stronger effect?
- Have my friends or loved ones expressed concern about my substance abuse?
- Do I hide my Ambien use from others because I feel they will try to make me stop?
- Has my drug abuse negatively affected my professional and/or personal life?
- Do I spend lots of money and time on obtaining more Ambien?
- Does my drug abuse feel out of control, so that I don’t feel able to stop on my own?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is time to ask for help. Ambien abuse and addiction can be just as dangerous as substance use disorders involving illicit drugs like heroin, and you should not try to overcome your addiction alone.
Ambien Addiction Treatment
Recovering from Ambien addiction takes time and patience but also professional treatment in a rehab center. Treatment often follows a specific pattern.
An individual must first safely detox from Ambien in professional treatment because the withdrawal effects caused by the drug can be severe, even deadly. Patients are usually weaned off the drug or treated with other medications, like Flumazenil, in order to ensure that they do not experience these effects in full.
During or after detoxing from Ambien, patients attend counseling like cognitive-behavioral therapy or group therapy in order to gain insight into their addiction and learn new skills for the future. They will also learn to recognize triggers, cope with cravings, and change negative attitudes and beliefs that promote substance abuse. Often, particular attention will be paid to learning healthy ways to overcome insomnia.
Treatment for co-occurring disorders
It is incredibly common for substance abusers to suffer from co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc. These issues must be simultaneously treated with the addiction so that neither disorder interferes with the progress made with the other.
Ambien abuse is dangerous and difficult to overcome, but recovery is possible with treatment.