Ambien, or its generic name zolpidem, is a sedative-hypnotic drug that is most commonly prescribed to those who experience insomnia or have trouble sleeping. The drug helps many people to fall asleep at the right time of night, stay asleep longer, or get better sleep, depending on their problem.
While Ambien is very beneficial to those individuals who need it and use it correctly, it can also be dangerous and addictive. It is one of the most commonly abused prescription drugs along with other sleep medications such as Lunesta and Sonata. It is scheduled by the DEA as a Schedule IV drug, meaning that it is not as highly abused as drugs like heroin but still has the potential for abuse and, oftentimes, addiction.
What are the Side Effects of Ambien?
Ambien will generally cause a person to become extremely drowsy, tired, and lethargic. As this is often the desired effect of the drug, it is beneficial to those who have trouble getting to this state. However, even for someone who doesn’t abuse Ambien, there are certain side effects associated with the drug.
Ambien’s general side effects are:
- Unsteady walking
- A feeling of having been drugged
- Difficulty with balance and coordination
- Stomach tenderness and pain
- Appetite changes
- Uncontrollable shaking of a certain body part
- Pain, burning, numbness, or tingling in the hands, arms, feet, or legs
- Unusual dreams
- Dry mouth
- Dry throat
- Ringing, pain, or itching in the ears
- Eye redness
- Muscle aches or cramps
- Joint, back, or neck pain
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
“Redness, burning, or tingling of the tongue” is also common with the sublingual tablets. In addition, there can be dangerous side effects such as rash (or signs of an allergic reaction), difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, vomiting, pounding heart, chest pain, or blurred vision. These issues are more likely to occur in someone who abuses Ambien, and even the milder side effects might become more intense the longer the individual abuses the drug.
Why Do People Abuse Ambien?
Often, a person will abuse Ambien by taking a large dose of the drug and then fighting the natural urge to sleep. This can cause a feeling of euphoria which is the desired effect for those who abuse it.
While this sensation may be enjoyable at first, eventually Ambien can become addictive if abused over a long period of time, usually around three to six months or longer. A person can become dependent on the way Ambien makes them feel and tolerant to the effects of the drug which causes them to take more each time. Both of these issues can help lead to addiction.
Addiction to the drug can occur after prolonged, heavy use and especially if the individual exhibits one or more of the factors that can help lead to this disease such as:
- Addiction running in the family
- Former issues with substance abuse
- A stressful lifestyle
- A mental disorder such as depression, an anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder
Ambien addiction is extremely difficult to fight because once the individual is addicted, they will not be able to stop taking the drug. The person will want to continue abusing Ambien all the time, even if they can see that the drug is hurting them.
Dangers of Ambien Addiction
There are many dangers involved when an individual becomes addicted to this drug. The NIDA lists several issues associated with Ambien abuse and addiction such as:
Amnesia is one of the common side effects also associated with the drug. Over time, addicts of the drug will experience problems with remembering large portions of the time where they were on the drug.
HIV or Hepatitis
“Risk of HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases from shared needles” is also a possibility, and individuals who abuse Ambien often do inject the drug instead of taking it orally because it gets into their system much more quickly.
When Ambien is abused along with alcohol, the effects of both substances become much more intense and dangerous. The use of alcohol with the drug “further slows the heart rate and breathing, which can lead to death.”
The withdrawal symptoms associated with this drug are extremely intense and will affect an individual who becomes addicted as they will likely experience dependence too. The common withdrawal symptoms for Ambien are:
- Stomach and muscle cramps
- Uncontrollable crying
- Panic attack
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Uncontrollable shaking of a body part
Among these, panic attacks and seizures can be extremely dangerous and frightening for someone who has never experienced them.
To avoid these symptoms, the individual might continue to abuse Ambien which is just as dangerous.
Abnormal thoughts and behavior
This issue can occur for someone taking Ambien as directed, but they will become more likely as well as potentially more dangerous for someone who is addicted and abusing the drug constantly. Symptoms include more outgoing or aggressive behavior than normal, confusion, agitation, hallucinations, worsening of depression, and suicidal thoughts or actions.
While the issues of depression are extremely harmful for obvious reasons, a person can act irrationally or aggressively when experiencing hallucinations. This is why someone undergoing these symptoms must be taken to a hospital or treatment center immediately.
Even though Ambien is not an illicit drug, its abuse can still cause many dangers for an individual as well as problems in the person’s life and the lives of their loved ones. The drug is not meant to be taken in high doses or for recreational purposes. Other issues can occur in the life of someone who becomes addicted to Ambien including:
- An inability to stop abusing the drug, no matter how dangerous or problematic it becomes for them
- Grades dropping, problems in school, etc.
- Getting reprimanded at work or fired from a job for acting out or refusing to show up, meet deadlines, etc.
- Getting arrested or encountering other legal problems as a result of possession or actions while on the drug
- Experiencing family problems, loss of friendships, or breakups over drug abuse
- Encountering financial problems from spending money that was meant for other things on their Ambien habit
- No longer receiving the high they desire from the drug and, therefore, deciding to abuse even more dangerous or illicit drugs
Can Ambien Addiction Be Deadly?
Yes. A study on prescription drug-related overdoses found that “ED visits related to zolpidem (Ambien)––one of the most popular prescribed non-benzodiazepine hypnotics in the United States–– more than doubled during this period, from about 13,000 in 2004 to about 28,000 in 2008.” Ambien abuse and addiction can lead to overdose which includes drowsiness, coma, and slowed breathing or heartbeat. A person can die from a large dose of this drug because of the extreme respiratory depression that is often experienced in this case.
What the Treatments Available for Ambien Addicts?
Because of the possibility of seizures when an individual stops abusing the drug, it might be necessary for those looking for Ambien addiction treatment to attend inpatient rehab. In one of these facilities, the patient can be looked after 24 hours a day in a controlled environment where they will have no access to the drug. If they do exhibit extreme withdrawal symptoms, these can be managed by doctors and nurses on staff.
Usually, treatment for Ambien addiction will start with a slow tapering of the medication so that the withdrawal syndrome can be eased back as much as possible. Unfortunately, unlike an opioid addiction, there is no medication that treats addiction to sedative-hypnotics. The individual will still need to attend treatment, though, because counseling can be extremely beneficial.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on modifying the patient’s thinking, expectations, and behaviors while increasing skills for coping with various life stressors,… has been used successfully to help individuals adapt to discontinuing [CNS depressants]. CBT is helpful in teaching patients those skills they need to live a sober life without Ambien and to change the way they think about the drug.
Some other therapy types that can be used for this purpose include:
- Group therapy
- The group is extremely helpful because patients can hear their fears and feelings echoed in the other individuals who are also receiving treatment for the same issues.
- Contingency management
- CM is best used at the beginning of treatment, once the individual has been successfully weaned off the drug. The patient receives vouchers for staying off Ambien and for good behavior which are usually for fun, drug-free activities or necessities, depending on what most motivates the individual.
Treatment should ideally last at least 90 days, but some individuals experiencing less severe addiction may be able to transition into another, more casual treatment method after 30 days. It can be beneficial for the individual to continue with a support group or individualized counseling after formal treatment.
Ambien addiction can be dangerous and deadly which is why users of the drug should never take it more often or in higher doses than recommended by a doctor. The drug is potent and has intense side effects which should be taken into account in order to avoid the possibility of addiction.