December 9, 2022

Sleep aid / antihistamine which can cause memory loss


Diphenhydramine – found in Tylenol PM and Benadryl – is a very common over-the-counter sleeping pill and antihistamine. But confusion and memory loss have been attributed to its use in the elderly, according to a recent medical journal noted by People’s Pharmacy.

Question: My wife had trouble sleeping for years and started taking Tylenol PM every night (for diphenhydramine). Over time, she began to experience memory loss, enough to affect her work and family life. Her family has some incidence of age-related dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, so that was very worrying.

After reading one of your columns this year, we made the connection and she ditched the sleep aid. It’s about six months later, and she feels that she has almost fully recovered her mental sharpness. She is feeling so much better mentally and her communication skills have been restored to normal levels. I am writing to express our thanks.

A: Diphenhydramine (DPH) is a sedating antihistamine found in almost all over-the-counter “PM” pain relievers. It’s also found in some over-the-counter sleeping pills and allergy medications like Benadryl.

A recent review of sleep medications for the elderly concluded, “Diphenhydramine should be avoided in the elderly” (Clinical Therapeutics online, October 14, 2016). The authors note: “Drowsiness, drowsiness, confusion and memory loss have been well described with the use of diphenhydramine. Older people living in the community have been shown to have reduced alertness, reduced performance of memory tasks, and impaired episodic memory with diphenhydramine.

DPH, like many other drugs, affects brain function through the neurochemical acetylcholine.

Question: My husband was diagnosed with cluster headache in 1999, a few months after he received a pacemaker. The first eight years he tried 31 different prescriptions, and nothing worked.

Eventually, a doctor prescribed me oxygen, and it was such a relief. Until then, he suffered from three headaches a day for months. He was also living on Excedrin Migraine, about 10 tablets per day. Breathing in oxygen was relieving within minutes.

He retired in March 2015, and Medicare REFUSES to pay for oxygen for the headaches. His cluster headaches are back. A neurologist has prescribed prednisone, but the effect is only temporary. They will come back, as always.

Unfortunately, Social Security doesn’t extend far enough to afford oxygen on our own. He will have to return to Excedrin again. My thoughts are with all who suffer from these terrible and debilitating headaches.

A: Inhalation of oxygen is considered a first-line treatment for cluster headaches by the American Headache Society (Headache, July / August 2016). It is scandalous that Medicare does not cover this evidence-based treatment. Your husband’s doctor should appeal this unscientific decision.

In the meantime, your husband should be careful not to consume so much Excedrin Migraine. The makers of Excedrin Migraine are warning people, “Do not take more than 2 caplets in 24 hours, unless a doctor tells you otherwise.

Question: Using old-fashioned Listerine for my itchy scalp worked wonders. Thanks for writing about this remedy.

A: The original manufacturer of Listerine used to advertise their “infectious dandruff” product. Although the Food and Drug Administration no longer allows this claim, the ingredients in Listerine have antifungal activity. Many people report that rinsing the scalp with amber listerine relieves itching and flaking.