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How to Sleep with a Cold

Written by Rebecca Levi

There’s a good reason why you just want to sleep when you have a cold. Sleep helps the body prevent infections, fight inflammation, and stave off long-term illnesses. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to get a good night’s sleep when you need it the most. Common cold symptoms such as sneezing, sinus congestion, sore throat, and coughing often seem to get worse at night, making it even harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Why Is It So Hard To Sleep When You’re Sick?

Dealing with a cold is always unpleasant, but many people find that their symptoms seem to get worse in the evening. Lying down can increase nasal congestion, which often leads to mouth breathing. Mouth breathing, in turn, further irritates inflamed sinuses and throat tissues, causing cold sufferers to cough themselves awake.

Hormones like melatonin and cortisol also play a part in cold-related sleep disruption. While cortisol is commonly known as the “stress hormone,” it also helps fight infections like the cold virus. Cortisol levels tend to decrease as melatonin levels rise, causing symptoms to return in full force as you struggle to drift off.

So, What Helps?

Falling asleep might seem impossible when you’ve got a cold, but there are a few things you can do to avoid tossing and turning all night. Staying hydrated during the day, sticking to your usual bedtime routine, and maintaining a cool, stable room temperature can all make it easier to get some rest. Below, we’ve compiled a few more hints for getting a good night’s sleep while you’re feeling under the weather.

Tips For Falling Asleep With a Cold

  • Use a Humidifier: Dry air can irritate the nasal passages and lead to a host of respiratory issues, from sinus infections to allergies. If you’re already struggling with a stuffy nose or sore throat, a humidifier can help loosen mucus and calm irritated sinuses. Some humidifiers even double as diffusers, allowing you to add cold-friendly essential oils like eucalyptus to the soothing steam.
  • Rest In An Upright Position: Elevating your head allows mucus to drain, keeping airways clear and making it easier to breathe. Try using a firmer pillow or sleeping with additional pillows for extra support.
  • Choose the Right Over-the-Counter Medication: While it might be tempting to turn to cold medicines for relief, some over-the-counter remedies might actually make it harder to fall asleep. Ingredients like pseudoephedrine can make some people feel restless or nervous, while common antihistamines like diphenhydramine might lead to early morning grogginess. If you’re concerned about potential side effects, try a nasal decongestant spray instead of a pill or liquid. Topical sprays can clear congested nasal passages without keeping you up all night.
  • Avoid Drinking Alcohol Before Bed: Many people use alcohol to unwind in the evenings and fall asleep faster at night. While a glass of wine or a mixed drink might initially help you drift off when sleep seems impossible, alcohol only makes things worse in the long run. According to the National Sleep Foundation, alcohol interferes with normal sleep patterns, preventing the body from reaching the REM sleep stage. REM sleep plays a crucial role in healing and helping the immune system to prevent infections. Alcohol also causes dehydration, making you feel even worse in the morning.
  • Find Relief With Hot Liquids: Try a cup of hot, caffeine-free herbal tea or broth before bed instead of a nightcap. Warm, steamy liquids soothe the throat and work to break up congestion, and many bedtime teas are formulated especially to help you fall asleep. If you’re not a fan of tea, try drinking a bit of honey and lemon juice mixed with hot water. Recent research shows that honey is just as effective as over-the-counter medications at easing cough and cold symptoms.

Be Prepared: The tips above can certainly help you fall asleep, but they’re no guarantee you’ll stay there. When you’ve got a cold, it’s not uncommon to wake up in the middle of the night with a runny nose or sore throat. However, keeping a few supplies at hand can help you get back to sleep much faster. Before you turn in for the night, stock your bedside table with handy items like tissues, a glass of water, or cough drops.
Sleep might not be able to cure the common cold, but it plays a crucial part in the recovery process. Few cold remedies are as important — or as effective — as a good night’s sleep. While the average cold lasts for up to ten days, you can quickly get back on the mend by applying the tips above.