Sleep disturbances are common and prevalence rates increase with age. Especially in the elderly, somatic diseases and medications with adverse effects relating to sleep are frequent reasons for disturbed and nonrefreshing sleep. It should be emphasised that these reasons must be excluded before symptomatic therapy is started. In some cases the use of hypnosedatives may be included as part of the treatment of a somatic disease and may cause sleep disturbances. Pharmacotherapy is one of the main approaches in the management of primary insomnia and should be part of a broader treatment strategy including nonpharmacological methods. This article focuses on the tolerability of frequently prescribed hypnosedatives in the elderly with primary insomnia and addresses the primary care physician. In general, recommendations for the pharmacotherapy of insomnia in elderly patients include using a reduced dosage. For some substances (e.g. zolpidem, zopiclone, zaleplon, temazepam and triazolam) the recommended dosage is half that recommended for younger patients. The properties of the selected hypnosedative should be taken into consideration and matched with the type of sleep disturbance experienced by the patient. Ultrashort-acting drugs may be useful when initiating sleep is the main problem, whereas short- and intermediate-acting substances are recommended for maintaining sleep. Possible interactions with pre-existing medication must also be taken into consideration. Some agents such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, melatonin and herbal agents may be used in specific indications. However, only a few of these substances have proven tolerability in the elderly and further investigations are recommended.