Nyquil on shelf

We often wonder whether people read the label of their over-the-counter medicines. If they did, would most know what they were taking? Nyquil Cold & Flu formula is advertised to

“relieve your sneezing, sore throat, headache, minor aches and pains, fever, runny nose, and cough to help you get the rest you need.”

It is not promoted purely as a sleeping aid, and yet this reader wants to know if the familiar green liquid would help him stay asleep.

Q. I am past 60 and have tried numerous supplements to keep from having to get up several times a night. During the winter, I had occasion to take a shot of NyQuil or something similar. I find when I do that, I don’t get up.

I am somewhat leery of taking it too often. Do you have an opinion or a solution? I do not use sleep aids and I wonder if the cold medicine is acting as a sleep aid.

What’s in Nyquil?

A. NyQuil liquid contains a sedating antihistamine called doxylamine. It is the same ingredient found in Unisom SleepTabs. In addition, NyQuil contains 10 percent alcohol as an “inactive” ingredient. For comparison, beer is about 4 to 6 percent alcohol and wine averages about 12 percent.

Alcohol Before Bed?

Many sleep experts caution against using alcohol as a sleep aid. While it may help people fall asleep a little faster, it can disrupt normal sleep patterns (Alcohol, June 2015).

Occasional use of NyQuil when you have a cold should not pose a problem, though regular use to stay asleep is not advisable. For one thing, you are getting more drugs than necessary.

Nyquil Cold & Flu Liquid Ingredients:

Active Ingredients:

  • Acetaminophen 650 mg
  • Dextromethorphan 30 mg
  • Doxylamine 12.5 mg

Some of the “Inactive” Ingredients include:

  • Alcohol (10%)
  • Artificial colors
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Polyethylene glycol
  • Propylene glycol
  • Saccharin
  • Sodium citrate
  • Etc.

Antihistamines to Sleep?

Most of the over-the-counter sleeping pills contain one of two sedating antihistamines. Diphenhydramine (DPH) has been the ingredient in Benadryl for decades. Anyone who takes this allergy medicine knows that it can be very sedating. That is why DPH is the “PM” compound in so many nighttime pain relievers like Advil PM, Aleve PM and Tylenol PM, to name just a few.

Doxylamine is also a sedating antihistamine. We’re not surprised that combining such an antihistamine with 10% alcohol would be promoted as a nighttime remedy.

There is some concern about older people taking sleep aids that contain these sedating antihistamines to overcome insomnia. Here is an article from the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacy (Aug. 2017).

“The unintentional misuse of over-the-counter sleep aids among older adults is an important public health problem and a focus of Healthy People 2020. Accordingly, the 2015 Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults recommends that individuals 65 years or older avoid use of diphenhydramine and doxylamine; however, many over-the-counter sleep products contain these active ingredients.”

The Conclusion:

“A majority of older adults in a limited sample from the United States taking an over-the-counter medication to improve sleep are taking a product containing diphenhydramine or doxylamine, both of which are classified as potentially inappropriate for older adults.”

The authors note that:

“Results from this study suggest that many older adults are self-managing their sleep problems by taking OTC medications, many of which are not meant to be taken long-term by individuals of any age and may be inappropriate for older adults.”

The Raisin Remedy to Stay Asleep:

We know this sounds bizarre, but several years ago we heard from a reader that a handful of raisins before bedtime helped him stay asleep. It wasn’t because raisins have any sedating properties. This gentleman maintained that after eating raisins he did not have to get up as often to go to the bathroom.

We thought it sounded a bit silly, but we ran his story in our syndicated newspaper column. Since then we have heard from a lot of people who say it works. Here is just a smattering of the responses:

Ryan in New York City says the raisins help him stay asleep:

“I really had my doubts about this. I am only in my late 30s but for the past few years I have been getting up to urinate 4-5 times a night. My father has had the same issue since he was in his early 30s. I started taking 20 dark raisins right before bed (then brushing my teeth) and now I get up occasionally 2 times a night, but most times it’s only once.”

John in Sydney, Australia, is also getting relief:

“I tried it last night for the first time and only got up once and that was early in the night. After that I had an unbroken 7 hours sleep. The first time in years. In the last couple of years I have been getting up every one and a half hours. I am a 69-year-old male. Thank you for this tip, as lately this lack of decent sleep has been driving me to despair.”

Ellen in Dallas, Texas, is also happy with a little box of raisins:

“It works for me! I was getting up at least twice at night and when I read about the raisins in a newspaper column by the Graedons, I decided to try it. I eat one of the little
 boxes in a six-pack of raisins each night at bedtime.. It worked the first night!
 I slept a straight 7 hours without having to get up! And it has worked every night
 since then. It has been almost a month now.”

We know this remedy won’t work for everyone. Nothing, not even prescription drugs, will. But if our original questioner can use raisins instead of a nighttime cold remedy to stay asleep, we think that’s a pretty decent outcome.

You can read more about raisins for nighttime urination (nocturia) at this link:

Reduce Nighttime Urination (Nocturia) With a Handful of Raisins

To learn about many other ways to deal with insomnia and early morning wakening you may find our Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep helpful. It is available as an online resource in the Health Guide section of our website.

Share your own sleep story in the comment section below.

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  1. CHUCK

    my experience with immunotherapy was similar to some of the comments that were expressed previously. After having 6 treatments, my fatigue was so bad , that all I could manage was a walk from the bed to a chair, where I spent the day looking out the window. When I investigated the product later, I discovered that the manufacturer stated that people taking the drug, ” lived on average 6 months longer”. My treatment was to take 2 years. The thought of living 2 years feeling so fatigued that I couldn’t function at a normal level, caused me to drop the treatment. I also discovered from my medical insurance statement, that the immunotherpy treatment was billed at $25,000 per treatment.


    I couldn’t find a good list of side effects, but in previous research, I found that OTC and prescription sleep drugs can cause A-fib. Then, a doctor on our TV channel mentioned that the rise in A-fib cases could be caused by the amount of OTC drugs being sold.

  3. Marion

    What about their product zzzQuil? A friend was diagnosed with mono, and the health center had prescribed a steroid, and told her to take Benadryl and Tylenol. Despite her fatigue she couldn’t sleep. Her roommate went to the store for her and got zzzQuil instead of the Benadryl. I was concerned with either being used to aid her sleep. I’m giving her a feel-better basket, and maybe I should include a box or raisins along with the chicken soup mix, assorted juices, and water mug.

  4. Kerry

    I have taken Nyquil for colds before in my life, and it always seemed to really relieve my symptoms, and I slept great. But now I am 54, and I tried Nyquil this winter for a head cold and woke up numerous times during the night gasping for air. Turns out it was causing me “Central” Sleep Apnea. Thank God it was temporary, but it was traumatizing and dangerous. So, needless to say, the Nyquil went straight into the trash, and I will never take it or anything similar again! Thanks for this article!!!

  5. Jan

    The thing that always bothers me is that while ads for meds needing a prescription have to list the side effects, ads for OTC meds don’t, which contributes many people assuming OTC meds are “safe”/side effect free.

  6. Margo

    I eat 9 gin-soaked raisins every morning for arthritis pain, and I find it as effective as the glucosamine and chondroitan I used to take. I’m wondering if I ate these same raisins at bedtime if that would help with not having to get up at night for the bathroom.

  7. Elizabeth

    My husband and I have taken Melatonin at bedtime for sleep for years.
    It seems harmless and it works.
    Is there any contraindication taking this over time?

    • CRCM

      I remember reading years ago that Melatonin would exacerbate any auto-immune disorder, e.g., Multiple Sclerosis. So if you’ve had any neurological incidents, you might want to stay away from it.

  8. DSP

    Years ago my Mom used raisins to stop a bed-wetting issue with a younger brother. It worked!

  9. Joyce

    I have been having problems waking up around 3 AM and not being able to get back to sleep for a couple of hours. Very dragged out in the morning, and all day. Took a Benedryl rip-off for several years, started having memory problems, stopped that, memory is better now. Finally I remembered milk having a tendency to make me sleepy when I was younger. I’m 80 years old now and don’t use near as much milk as I used to. So I started cooking with more milk, and eating something for supper that was a milk or cheese based food, or drank a glass of milk about two hours before I wanted to go to sleep. Works like a charm! I sleep all night, rest well, and even remember my dreams, something that hasn’t happened for quite sometime.

  10. Brian
    Marysville, WA

    This topic made me think of Zquil, which is supposed to be a sleep aid quite similar to Nyquil without (so we are told) the cough and cold symptoms drugs. Is Zquil in the same category as Nyquil, and does it also come with recommendations to use sparingly?

  11. Tom M

    I do occasionally use this product if I have a cold, which thankfully I haven’t had in over two years. It does help me sleep, but I know it is something I don’t want to get hooked on. It is funny to me how big pharma lists “inactive” ingredients…so I wonder if they are inactive, why add them? I didn’t know this has high fructose corn syrup included, but I see on the label it does. Some of the other cold remedies I have taken in the past have made me feel kind of strange. I use this one because I haven’t felt any strange affects.

  12. Anne

    I think a lot of us grew up in a time when we didn’t question anything advertised to us as a way to relieve symptoms. I remember taking NyQuil once and feeling really out of it the next day. I know I never looked at the ingredients, and wouldn’t have known what most of them were anyway. I used Afrin for years, and when I got that rebound effect, I literally had to sleep sitting up for quite some time I was so congested. They never advertised that. And, of course, we didn’t have The People’s Pharmacy educating us on complications and possible side effects.

    Now it’s a battle because drugs are being pushed at us constantly. There’s something for everything imaginable, and the side effects are given by someone who talks incredibly fast, at a low volume, while we watch the happy people who have seen such great improvements from taking the drug.

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