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What Is a Hypnotic?

What is a Hypnotic? Find out on this Moment of Science.

The word “hypnotic” sounds very mysterious. Maybe it conjures up visions of a swinging watch and a voice saying “you are getting sleepy”. But to your doctor or pharmacist, the word hypnotic means something quite different. In medicine, a hypnotic is a type of drug. So, what is a hypnotic drug? And why do they call them that anyway?

Simply put, a hypnotic is any drug whose purpose is to produce sleep: it’s a sleeping pill. But not every drug that makes you sleepy is used as a hypnotic.

Many drugs may produce drowsiness as a side effect, but only those that are primarily used for sleep are true hypnotics. For example, consider the well-known drug, Valium. Many people would call Valium a “sleeping pill” since it produces drowsiness. But, it’s not really used as a hypnotic.

Valium is used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, muscle spasms and even seizures. On the other hand, a hypnotic like Chloral Hydrate is given only to produce sleep. Still, why call sleeping pills hypnotics? Well, they are named for the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos.

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