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Difficulty sleeping

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Learn more about difficulty sleeping: introduction

Insomnia means you regularly have problems sleeping. It usually gets better by changing your sleeping habits.

Check if you have insomnia

You have insomnia if you regularly:

  • find it hard to go to sleep
  • wake up several times during the night
  • lie awake at night
  • wake up early and can't go back to sleep
  • still feel tired after waking up
  • find it hard to nap during the day even though you're tired
  • feel tired and irritable during the day
  • find it difficult to concentrate during the day because you're tired

You can have these symptoms for months, sometimes years.

How much sleep you need

Everyone needs different amounts of sleep. On average we need:

  • adults – 7 to 9 hours
  • children – 9 to 13 hours
  • toddlers and babies – 12 to 17 hours

You probably don't get enough sleep if you're constantly tired during the day.

What causes insomnia

The most common causes are:

  • stress, anxiety or depression
  • noise
  • a room that's too hot or cold
  • uncomfortable beds
  • alcohol, caffeine or nicotine
  • recreational drugs like cocaine or ecstasy
  • jet lag
  • shift work
Illnesses and other things that can cause insomnia

Illnesses and medications that can cause insomnia:

Many medications for these illnesses can also cause insomnia.

Things that keep you from getting a good night's sleep:

How you can treat insomnia yourself

Insomnia usually gets better by changing your sleeping habits.

Do

  • go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – only go to bed when you feel tired
  • relax at least 1 hour before bed – for example, take a bath or read a book
  • make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet – use thick curtains, blinds, an eye mask or ear plugs
  • exercise regularly during the day
  • make sure your mattress, pillows and covers are comfortable

Don't

  • smoke, or drink alcohol, tea or coffee at least 6 hours before going to bed
  • eat a big meal late at night
  • exercise at least 4 hours before bed
  • watch television or use devices right before going to bed – the bright light makes you more awake
  • nap during the day
  • drive when you feel sleepy
  • sleep in after a bad night's sleep – stick to your regular sleeping hours instead

How a pharmacist can help with insomnia

You can get sleeping aids from a pharmacy. However, they won't get rid of your insomnia and they have many side effects.

Sleeping aids can often make you drowsy the next day. You might find it hard to get things done.

You shouldn't drive the day after taking them.

See a GP if:

  • changing your sleeping habits hasn't worked
  • you've had trouble sleeping for months
  • your insomnia is affecting your daily life in a way that makes it hard for you to cope

Book a GP appointment online

Treatment from a GP

Your GP will try to find out what's causing your insomnia so you get the right treatment.

Sometimes you will be referred to a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy. This can help you change the thoughts and behaviours that keep you from sleeping.

GPs now rarely prescribe sleeping pills to treat insomnia. Sleeping pills can have serious side effects and you can become dependent on them.

Sleeping pills are only prescribed for a few days, or weeks at the most, if:

  • your insomnia is very bad
  • other treatments haven't worked
Content supplied by NHS Choices