Allergy sufferers deal with watery eyes, runny noses, and itchy throats on a regular basis. They also experience disturbed sleep due to their nasal congestion and discomfort.
Fortunately, it is possible to sidestep some of the negative effects it has on sleep. You can never get rid of allergies entirely, but there’s a lot you can do to remove allergens from your bedroom and make your sleep more allergy- and disruption-free.
What causes allergies?
Allergies are an immune system response to substances from the outside world you breathe in, eat or touch. Common allergy triggers are pollen, mold, dust mites, pet dander, wool and fur. People may also experience allergic reactions with certain foods, medications, or insect bites, although those don’t typically create the kind of chronic reaction that impacts sleep on a regular basis.
Some people are more sensitive to these allergens than others. They experience a stronger reaction that includes a host of symptoms like:
Itchy or watery eyes
Post nasal drip (when mucus sticks to the back of your throat, forcing you to cough)
As you can see, Allergic rhinitis (AR), also known as hay fever, shares many symptoms with the common cold (like congestion and watery eyes). Affecting 20 million adults and over 6 million children, seasonal AR occurs in response to pollen in the air from trees, mold, grass or ragweed, while year-round AR typically comes from indoor items like mold, pet dander, and dust mites in bedding and carpeting.
Many people never get their allergies diagnosed, although a diagnosis can be extremely helpful in understanding what exactly triggers your allergies, so you can take steps to avoid them. For instance, you may be allergic to a chemical in one of your cleaning products, but if you keep using those particular cleaning products to rid your house of allergens, you’re actually making things harder on yourself.
How allergies affect sleep
Almost half (48%) of seasonal allergy sufferers report problems getting uninterrupted sleep. Across the board, they are more vulnerable to insomnia and the resulting daytime fatigue and chronic sleep deprivation. Their nasal congestion also puts them at risk for sleep apnea and snoring.
Allergy sufferers more than twice as likely to experience insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep) than people without allergies.
It’s easier to sleep when you’re breathing through your nose, but if your nose is congested due to allergies, you breathe more through your mouth, interrupting your sleep. Mouth breathing also dries out your lips and throat, causing discomfort and making it tough to fall asleep in the first place.
There is a direct correlation between the severity of allergy symptoms and frequency of insomnia. The table below demonstrates the increase of insomnia reports among individuals with moderate to severe AR:
Daytime fatigue and sleep deprivation
Unfortunately, sleep deprivation is a common problem today (the CDC has even called it a public health epidemic). But while nearly two-thirds of allergy sufferers don’t think they’re getting sufficient sleep, only a quarter of people without allergies feel the same.
Allergy symptoms create uncomfortable conditions, like watery eyes and runny noses, that make it difficult to fall asleep at night. Nasal congestion often causes sleep-disordered breathing like snoring, which itself interrupts sleep. As a result, allergy sufferers have trouble getting sufficient, high-quality sleep on a regular basis and rarely wake up feeling well-rested. This impairs their daytime functioning and worsens their mood.
People with AR have less sex and experience difficulty focusing during the day. They experience higher levels of stress and are more prone to depression, especially when they don’t get enough sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation not only weakens your immune system, but it can change your immune defense for the long term, increasing your risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Sound sleep is essential for maintaining good health and managing allergy symptoms. During deep sleep, your body restores and refreshes, repairing your muscles and strengthening your immune system. Without sufficient sleep, this process is interrupted, so you’re less equipped to fight your allergy symptoms the following day.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)is a sleep disorder where the individual’s breathing suspends momentarily repeatedly throughout the night, decreasing the level of oxygen in their blood. OSA is caused by an obstruction of the airways from nasal congestion, a relaxing of the throat muscles relax, or another problem.
The nasal congestion experienced by allergy sufferers increases their risk of OSA, but studies have shown that if allergy symptoms and accompanying nasal inflammation are reduced, their OSA symptoms can reduce as well – leading to better sleep and more restful lives.
Treating AR in childhood is especially important, because it prevents the face from elongating and increasing the child’s risk for sleep apnea. OSA in childhood impacts cognitive functioning to such an extent that it can limit them from reaching their full potential due to potential brain damage.
If you’re concerned your snoring is a sign of sleep apnea rather than a reaction to your allergies, talk to your doctor. They may order a polysomnography (an overnight sleep test performed in a lab) to monitor your breathing. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, they may recommend you get fitted for a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. Worn over the face while you sleep, these machines prevent your airways from narrowing and closing in while you sleep.
CPAP therapy is an extremely effective treatment for OSA. However, individuals with allergies may do better with a full face mask than a nasal or nasal pillows mask. A full face CPAP covers the full face, so individuals receive air whether they’re breathing through their mouth or their nose.
Tips for sleeping better with allergies
The best way to sleep better with allergies is to eliminate triggers from your bedroom to the best extent possible. Whether you’re allergic to pollen, pet dander, or dust mites, the following tips should relieve your symptoms and help you enjoy more restful sleep.
1. Clean and filter your household air.
Get a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter for your bedroom, and maintain it in tip top shape. This includes changing out the filter, and cleaning the outside the purifier.
Don’t forget to clean your A/C vents and change out those filters as well. You can get high-efficiency filters for your air conditioning, too.
Vacuum regularly, and not just your floors. Get a hand vacuum to clean furniture.
2. Watch the humidity.
If you use a humidifier, regularly clean it and replace the water to prevent mold.
However, take care not to over humidify your home, as that creates perfect conditions for mold to grow. Always turn on the bathroom fan after you shower or bathe, and clean it regularly. A dehumidifier can help remove extra moisture from your bedroom if you don’t use air conditioning.
3. Keep your bedroom windows closed.
You may enjoy a cool breeze, but you’re inviting allergens to enter along with it, so keep your bedroom windows closed. Check regularly to ensure the seals on all outside doors and windows are intact.
For your window coverings, opt for washable curtains or wipeable roller shades that you can easily clean, instead of mini blinds or heavy fabrics that attract dust and are difficult to clean.
Further keep allergens from entering your bedroom by removing your clothes from the day outside your bedroom, and then getting into clean pajamas before coming in.
4. Say goodnight to Fido and Fifi.
People can be allergic to pet dander, saliva, urine, and fur. Even if you’re not allergic to pets in particular, if you suffer from any kind of seasonal allergy, you’ll want to remove pets from your bedroom.
Pets can track in allergens from the outside world, so wipe down their paws after walks and bathroom breaks, and bathe and brush them once a week.
5. Choose a hypoallergenic mattress and bedding.
We’ll get into this in detail in the following sections, but you’ll want to invest in an allergy-resistant mattress and bedding products. Dust mites feed off our dead skin, which you’re prone to shed while you sleep, explaining why so many of them make your mattress their new home. Your dead skin, along with all those dust mites, can double the weight of your mattress within 8 years!
Regularly clean your mattress. Wash your sheets every week on the hot cycle, and dry them using the hot setting on your dryer, too.
The cold and even the warm water settings do not kill dust mites – only the hot water setting does, as one 2007 study found. The researchers discovered that washing laundry in warm water (104 degrees Fahrenheit) only killed 6.5% of dust mites, but the hot water setting (140 degrees Fahrenheit) killed all of them. The hot water setting also significantly improves the amount of pet dander and pollen removed.
However, if you’re strongly opposed to using the hot setting, the study authors proposed that this alternative can be just as effective: washing at the warm temperature setting, and then two, 3-minute rinses in cold water.
7. Open up your nose.
Natural ways to relieve nasal congestion before bed include aromatherapy and nasal rinses. Eucalyptus and peppermint essential oils have anti-inflammatory properties that make them natural decongestants.
For your nasal rinse, pour a saline flush into a Neti pot. Then tilt your head 45 degrees over your bathroom sink and pour the flush into one nostril, letting it drain out the other. Don’t be alarmed if some gets into your throat – this is normal. WebMD provides directions on creating a saline flush for your Neti pot.
You can also try a nasal decongestant spray or antihistamines for immediate relief. Antihistamines like Benadryl have a notably drowsy effect that can help induce sleep. However, these should only be used on a short-term basis as addiction can develop from overuse and your symptoms may worsen. Alternately, steroid nasal sprays work over time to lessen your immune response to the allergen.
If you’re taking medications for your allergies, review the side effects to ensure they don’t include insomnia.
Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day of the week. Aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep nightly. Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
Take a warm shower before bed. It will loosen up your congestion, and as the hot water evaporates off your skin, your body will cool down and naturally feel sleepier.
Avoid alcohol, especially at night. While it makes you drowsy, it ultimately disrupts your sleep and can exacerbate your seasonal allergy symptoms. Instead, stay hydrated by drinking water. It helps you thin the mucus and keep it from building up in your throat.
Best mattresses for allergy sufferers
Today most mattresses are constructed of allergy-resistant fabrics and materials, but some mattresses are better at preventing allergies that others – memory foam and latex beds in particular.
Memory foam beds are known for their characteristic hug. They contour and conform to the sleeper’s body, providing excellent pressure-point relief and support. Ones made from plant-based foams are naturally breathable and sleep cooler than traditional memory foam.
Latex beds provide a similar although lesser contour than a memory foam bed, but with a natural elasticity that makes for a bouncier surface more suitable for sex. All-latex beds, also known as natural latex or pure latex, are made almost entirely from organic materials, so they’re naturally hypoallergenic and resistant to dust mites, mildew, and mold. Of course, in the instance of people who have a specific latex allergy, these are not an ideal choice.
If you sleep hot, a memory foam mattress may not be the best choice since they tend to envelop the body. Latex beds sleep cooler, especially all-latex mattress. You might look for latex hybrids that include a cooling gel or copper in their top comfort layer as well. Sleeping hot can lead to night sweats and the kind of moisture that attracts dust mites.
To avoid moisture from ruining your mattress, get a waterproof mattress protector or encasement. It is important that it is waterproof versus water-resistant – only a waterproof cover will prevent any moisture from seeping in. These protective covers extend the life of your mattress, preventing stains and dust mites. If you use a box spring, you’ll need to get a box spring cover as well.
The one kind of mattress allergy sufferers would do well to avoid are traditional innerspring mattresses. Due to their open construction, these beds provide a lot of room for dust mites to inhabit. Plus, they often include a pillow top or euro top for additional comfort, which features nooks and crannies for dust mites to live. If you do choose to go with an innerspring, be aware that you’ll have to invest significantly more time cleaning it with a vacuum, and you’ll absolutely want to get a dust mite resistant zip cover with enclosed zippers.
Depending on the quality of your mattress, you can expect to replace it every 8 to 9 years. An old mattress no longer provides adequate support, but for allergy sufferers, it makes sleeping even more uncomfortable due to a buildup of dust mites.
Best bedding for allergy sufferers
Allergy sufferers should use hypoallergenic pillows and bedding. The label hypoallergenic does not indicate that the product inherently “kills” or eliminates allergens. Rather, bedding made with hypoallergenic materials simply refers to the fabrics being woven tightly enough to prevent allergens from sneaking in and making it their new home.
Hypoallergenic pillow filler materials promote breathability while preventing the moisture and humidity that attracts dust mites. All-natural and organic pillows are more expensive (running $150 or more on average, while latex pillows offer a more affordable alternative at only $40 to $60.
Get pillows that are washable, and use a pillow cover in addition to a pillow case. Wool and cotton are naturally more breathable cover materials. Bamboo, linen, and silk are other great choices. However, even with regular washing, plan to replace your pillows every 6 months.
If your child is the one with allergies, make sure you wash their stuffed animals, too.
We’ve talked a lot about getting cases for your mattress, box spring, and pillows. However, there’s no way to cover your sheets. That’s why it’s especially important to choose hypoallergenic ones free of chemicals and dyes.
Bamboo is a soft material that’s naturally hypoallergenic and resistant to mold, mildew, and dust mites.
Silk is even softer, but still just as hypoallergenic. Finally, a luxury you can indulge in guilt-free!
100% Cotton is naturally breathable, and while not quite as soft as silk, it’s hypoallergenic properties come with a much more affordable price tag.
Like cotton, wool is also wonderful at wicking away moisture and naturally resists dust mites.