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How to Sleep With a Stuffy Nose

Written by Tuck Staff

When you’re sick with a cold, or your allergies are flaring up and causing a stuffy nose, sleep is often the best medicine. Unfortunately, when you’re so congested that you can hardly breathe, it’s hard to even fall asleep, never mind stay asleep and get a good night’s rest.

Your first instinct when you have a stuffy nose and want to get some rest might be to take a decongestant to clear your sinuses. That’s not always your best option, though, as many decongestants contain ingredients that will actually keep you awake. Not to mention, it’s not always a buildup of mucus that causes your stuffiness, but rather swelling of the nasal passages that create the blocked feeling.

So before you head to the medicine cabinet, try some of these tricks to get to sleep — even when you can’t breathe through your nose.

Prepare for Sleep

Getting rest when you have a stuffy nose begins well before bedtime. There are some things you can do throughout the day to help alleviate your symptoms and get more rest throughout the night.

  • Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of fluids helps thin mucus and drains your sinuses. Doctors recommend increasing your fluid intake to about 92 ounces (11.5 cups) for women and 124 ounces (15.5 cups) for men when you have a cold. Water is the best option, but herbal tea is also a good choice. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which will only keep you awake and won’t do anything to clear your sinuses.
  • Don’t Blow Your Nose: It may seem counterintuitive, but blowing your nose repeatedly throughout the day can actually make your congestion worse. Instead, use tissues to gently dab your nose if it’s runny, but otherwise leave it alone. Researchers have determined that the pressure from blowing actually causes the fluid and mucus in your sinuses to back up, increasing stuffiness. If blowing is the only option, blow one nostril at a time gently, and only do it occasionally.
  • Eat Right: Spicy foods are actually quite helpful in relieving a stuffy nose. A compound found in chili peppers called capsaicin thins mucus, which can help clear your sinuses, albeit temporarily — and with a bit more of a runny nose. If your stomach is already upset from post nasal drip, though, or if you’re susceptible to heartburn, chicken soup is another delicious remedy.  Although there isn’t any conclusive evidence that chicken soup actually cures a cold, some studies show it has mild anti-inflammatory properties, and chicken broth does help you stay hydrated, so it doesn’t hurt to enjoy some soup when you’re sick.
  • Get Your Room Ready: The right sleep environment supports healthy sleep when you aren’t sick, but it’s even more important when you aren’t feeling well. Keeping your room cool and dark and adding an extra pillow or two to your bed can help you feel more comfortable.
  • Take a Shower: Steam helps open your sinuses, and can thin mucus to help you breathe easier. Take a hot shower before bed — which can help you relax as well — or sit in the bathroom with the door closed and the hot water running.

Many people find that their congestion worsens at night, but taking care of yourself all day can help keep that from happening. But that’s not all you can do to sleep well.

Heading to Bed

Sometimes, you might feel fine when you get into bed, only to have your congestion worsen as you try to fall asleep. Every time you try a new position, the stuffiness eases for a few minutes, but then returns.

To keep your sinuses clear once you get in bed, try these tips.

  • Use a humidifier: When the air in your bedroom is dry, it can irritate your nasal passages and make your stuffiness feel worse. Using a humidifier or vaporizer at night can help keep the air moist to help you sleep. Another plus to using a humidifier? A 2010 study found that maintaining moisture in the air helps prevent the flu. Just be sure to clean the machine regularly to prevent mold and bacteria buildup that can make you sick.
  • Diffuse essential oils: Although there isn’t any conclusive scientific evidence that essential oils can help you breathe easier, they can help you relax and get more rest. And many people report that diffusing tea tree, eucalyptus, or peppermint oil can help with a stuffy nose. Keep in mind, though, that some oils are toxic to animals, so if you have pets, you’ll want to find a different way to use them, such as applying them to your feet or chest.
  • Apply menthol chest rub: A menthol based chest rub (like Vicks VapoRub) applied to your chest and back can help make it easier to breathe. Some people even apply the rub to their feet and cover them with thick socks, claiming that it helps clear their stuffy nose, although there are no studies to confirm that doing so actually works.
  • Try a warm compress: Once you’re in bed, use a warm compress on your forehead and sinuses to help loosen the mucus.
  • Use saline spray: Rinsing your nasal passages before bed can help relieve congestion, as it can help flush mucus out of your sinuses. For severe congestion you may wish to use a decongestant nasal spray, but follow the instructions and only use the product for a few days. Overusing these sprays can actually lead to swelling and irritation in your nasal passages, leading to rebound stuffiness.
  • Sleep on your back: When you have a stuffy nose, the best sleep position is on your back, with your head propped up on pillows. This way, gravity can help the mucus drain from your sinuses. Sleeping on your side can cause the mucus to drain to that side, causing more pressure and discomfort, or even worsening the congestion on both sides. Sleeping on your stomach will only increase pressure and pain in your face. Consider using a wedge pillow to ensure adequate support for your neck and shoulders. Not only can these pillows help with sinus congestion, but they’re also useful for reducing acid reflux, back pain, and other problems that keep you awake.

Using Medication

When your stuffy nose is keeping you awake, and none of the other remedies help, medication may be the answer. However, before you stumble to the medicine cabinet in search of relief, keep a few things in mind.

First, while a decongestant might be useful for getting you through the day, it may not be ideal for helping your sleep. In many cases, decongestants are stimulants, and will actually keep you awake. While some decongestants, like Sudafed, are designed to only treat congestion, others include painkillers and other medications to treat multiple symptoms. Carefully read the packaging for these medications and choose the one that treats the symptoms you have, and skip those that have medicines you don’t need.

If you’re taking other medications, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any over the counter decongestants. Some medications aren’t recommended for people with certain conditions. For example, if you have high blood pressure, medications containing pseudoephedrine can raise your heart rate and blood pressure to dangerous levels. If you opt to use a decongestant, choose one developed specifically not to raise your blood pressure.

A better option for treating a stuffy nose with medication is to choose an antihistamine instead. Antihistamines tend to make you drowsy, so they are best taken right before bed. They work by blocking histamine, a hormone that helps trigger allergic reactions, including congestion. Although they work best when your congestion is due to allergies rather than a cold, they can help alleviate a stuffy nose enough to help you fall asleep.

Another medication to try is a corticosteroid nasal spray. Available over-the-counter, these sprays help reduce inflammation in your nasal passages that causes congestion. Typically used by allergy sufferers, some of these medications require multiple doses before they are effective, so they aren’t ideal when you have a cold.

Neti Pots and Nasal Irrigation

An increasingly popular option for treating a stuffy nose before bed is nasal irrigation. This is usually done with a neti pot, a container specially designed to flush water through your nasal passages.

To use a neti pot, you fill the container with a sterile saltwater mixture. This mixture can be purchased premade, or you can make your own with distilled or boiled water. Leaning over a sink and turning your head sideways, you pour water into your top nostril and let it drain out the bottom one.

You then repeat the process on the other side. By doing so, you flush the mucus out of your nose and reduce stuffiness. In addition to neti pots, you can use specially-designed squeeze containers to irrigate and rinse your nasal passages.

Neti pots can be effective, and some people swear by them. However, it’s vital that the solution you use is fully sterile, and that you completely clean and sterilize the device after using it, otherwise it could introduce more bacteria into your sinuses that can lead to serious infections.

Allergy-Proof Your Bedroom

Not all stuffy noses are brought on by the cold or flu. Allergies can also cause nasal congestion, along with sneezing, a runny nose, sore throat, and other symptoms, including trouble sleeping. In fact, the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reports that about half of people with seasonal allergies have trouble sleeping when their allergies flare.

The best way to sleep well with allergy-induced congestion is to keep it from happening in the first place. Taking antihistamines or corticosteroid medications, whether over-the-counter or prescribed, can help lock the allergens that cause the reaction. Other steps to help allergy-proof your bedroom include:

  • Keep pets out of the bedroom. Fido might be a great snuggler but pet hair and dander can cause allergy flare-ups. Make your bedroom a pet-free zone.
  • Choose naturally hypoallergenic, organic materials for bedding, such as 100 percent cotton. Avoid down, feathers, wool, and cashmere, which can aggravate allergies and make your stuffy nose worse.
  • Use covers on your mattresses and pillows to block dust mites, dust, and dander from building up on your bed. Wash them regularly.
  • Dust and vacuum your bedroom regularly. Hang washable curtains or drapes that you can clean every few months to prevent dust buildup.
  • Use an air filter to remove allergens that cause your stuffy nose from the air.

When to See a Doctor

Although in most cases, a stuffy nose is temporary — albeit annoying — there are times when you should see a doctor to rule out a more serious issue, like a sinus infection. Infants and anyone over age 65, or who has a compromised immune system, should see a doctor when they have a stuffy nose.

You should also make an appointment if your congestion lasts for longer than a week and is accompanied by a fever, you’re having trouble breathing, or the discharge changes to a green or yellow color with pain or fever, or if it becomes bloody or pus-like. This usually indicates an infection that needs prescription treatment.

Trying to sleep with a stuffy nose is no one’s idea of a good time, but it doesn’t have to keep you awake all night. With a few simple home remedies, you can reduce the pressure and congestion, and get the sleep you need to get over your cold and get back to yourself as quickly as possible.

Additional Resources

Need more insight into getting the best night’s sleep you can? Follow the links below to learn more: