Teens don’t get enough sleep and one in four cope by medicating.

Less than three percent of teens get the recommended 8 or 9 hours of sleep a day, according to a recent Pediatrics study.

So, robbed of slumber, a quarter of them seek relief in herbal, over-the-counter pills and prescriptions.

The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found that 28 percent of teens ages 13-18 tried some type of medication to help them sleep.

  • 16 percent said they tried over-the-counter sleep medicines like NyQuil or a “PM” formulation of pain reliever or cold medicine.
  • 14 percent said they used antihistamines like Benadryl.
  • Five percent said they used prescription sleep medicine.

Even more turned to natural or herbal remedies, specifically melatonin, at 36 percent.

Doctors warn taking sleep aids could endanger teen’s lives.

Teens are taking drugs to sleep without ever seeing a doctor

The Mott poll released in September surveyed 1,018 parents about strategies for dealing with their teens sleep issues.

Alarming to poll co-director Sarah Clark was that only a quarter of parents of teens with sleep problems said they or their teen had ever talked to a doctor about their issues.

“A big part of this is that people don’t realize this is a topic they should bring up with their doctor. If doctors don’t think to ask about it, then it’s not addressed,” Clark told All the Moms. “The second thing that stands out with this poll is that there very well may be something medical going on or health related. There are cracks in the system.”

Clark said 10 percent of parents of teens with sleep problems attributed the issues to a health condition or medication. If parents or teens had a conversation about sleep with doctors, they could adjust medications or address root causes like chronic pain in student athletes.

Dr. Amrita Dhanjal, a family medicine physician and behavioral health specialist with Terros Health in Arizona, agreed doctors need to do a better job of addressing sleep, which is talked about a lot during infancy but not much afterward.

Between “vaccinations and the sex talk,” the “burden” is on doctors, Dhanjal said, “to bring it up as a question every single time. Unless we are asking them, then problems are not going to be unmasked.”

Doctors disagree on which medication is least dangerous for teens

Doctors seem to agree that teens taking medication to sleep is risky. But they disagree on which — “natural” supplements, prescription or over-the-counter — remedies pose the most harm.

Dhanjal, for example, believes prescription medications are the safest because they are tested and regulated, whereas supplements and other natural remedies don’t get the same scrutiny.

“There are many supplements that get labeled natural and herbal but they are not FDA approved. This does not equate to a safe product for adults, but especially for children where drugs can get through the blood-brain barrier and have long-term effects. There are no studies to tell us otherwise. That is what I really worry about,” she said.

Dhanjal is no fan of over-the-counter drugs either, saying that again, she worries about the impact on the teen’s brain from extended use.

No studies have been done on adolescent use of sleep medication remedies. Previous studies have found that long-term use of over the counter sleeping aids, like Tylenol PM and antihistamines, however can have serious side effects in older adults, including cognitive impairment.

A different point of view …

On the other side of the fence is Dr. Sheila Tsai, section head of Sleep Medicine at National Jewish Health. She recommends natural supplements over prescription sleep aids.

Tsai said prescription medication carries a higher risk of side-effects and addiction because teens can build up a tolerance quickly.

She says that melatonin can be safe if used as directed and so can an occasional use of an antihistamine or Tylenol PM. Tsai defined occasional use as no more than 1-2 times a week and for not more than 1-2 months.

“I do caution against taking any medications in general because of the teens’ developing brain,” Tsai said. “They need to seek help from a primary care doctor or a medical provider.”

Parents opt for natural sleep aids

Parents are more aligned in their views, according to the poll. Among them, 60 percent believed that natural/herbal sleep remedies were the safest. They were less positive about over-the-counter sleep medicine (23 percent said it was safe) and were not at all certain about prescription sleep medicine (6 percent viewed them as safe).

Parents reported doctors recommended prescription sleep medication more often than over-the-counter medications.

A lack of sleep for teens is risky even without using drugs

The potential health risk of using sleep aids only compounds ones teens already face from too little shut eye. Teens who lose sleep risk:

  • Becoming the heart patients of tomorrow. A study published in Pediatrics in June found young teens robbed of proper rest had a wider waist circumference, higher blood pressure and lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.
  • Engaging in risky behavior like drunk driving, unsafe sex, use of of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, according to a JAMA Pediatrics study published this month.
  • Considering suicide, planning a suicide attempt or attempting suicide. Researchers with the Harvard Medical School and the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital analyzed data as part of the same JAMA Pediatrics study. They found that those who slept less than six hours a night were three times more likely to consider or attempt suicide and four times as likely to attempt suicide that resulted in treatment.

Doctors say try sleep hygiene before medications

Parents in the Mott poll listed electronic use at the primary reason their children weren’t sleeping.

More than half, 56 percent, said teens’ phones, social media and other electronics contributed to their lack of sleep. Homework and an irregular schedule were other reasons listed.

Before trying sleep aids, return to basics like establishing a regular sleep schedule, Tsai said. She sympathizes with parents, and in the last five years has seen an influx of teens in her own sleep clinic fighting some serious emotional battles.

“There’s more electronic usage and I feel like our teens have higher rates of anxiety and/or depression and that plays a role in our sleep,” she said.

Sleep hygiene tips

  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. It’s as difficult with teens as it was when they were infants, but stick to it as much as possible.
  • Include a winding down time before going to bed.
  • Make the bedroom an inviting, relaxing environment. Make it clean, uncluttered and dark.
  • Limit or avoid daytime naps.
  • Avoid caffeine close to bedtime.
  • Exercise to promote quality sleep.

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