Study sounds alarm on sleep-aid ingredient zolpidem

Sleep aids have landed in the safety spotlight recently, with regulatory agencies lowering dosages on some meds to ease side effect worries. But overmedication has its own set of risks, and a new study says those resulted in a doubling of emergency department visits between 2005 and 2010.

Estimated emergency visits involving zolpidem--the active ingredient in Sanofi's ($SNY) Ambien, Meda's Edluar, Transcept's ($TSPT) Intermezzo and others--went from 21,824 in 2005-2006 to 42,274 in 2009-2010, Forbes contributor Dr. Robert Glatter reports, citing data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It did not say whether any of the visits stemmed from intentional overdose.

Even without overmedicating, zolpidem can come with dangerous side effects, including drowsiness while driving the next morning. Those prompted the FDA to require in January that drugmakers halve the recommended dose for women, who it said eliminate zolpidem from their bodies more slowly than men do.

The EMA followed with its own safety warnings in March, with its Pharmacovigilance Risk Assessment Committee recommending updates to zolpidem's product information to underscore the drug's associated risks.

But it's not just zolpidem that has regulatory authorities worried. In May, the FDA tasked Lunesta maker Sunovion with changing the med's label and lowering the recommended starting dose after data showed morning-after levels could be high enough to impair activities like driving.

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