How to Sleep With a Cold

The average cold can last up to two weeks, and that's way too long to go without a full night's rest.

You know it's a cold—and not the flu—if you feel congested and your symptoms are confined to your head, nose, and throat. You're not congested because you're full of mucus, however, you're congested because the blood vessels in your upper respiratory tract are inflamed, causing the lining of your nasal passages and throat to swell up. Over-the-counter decongestants can help you feel better but some, such as pseudoephedrine, are stimulating drugs that can make you jittery and interfere with sleep. At the same time, antihistamines can thicken mucus and make it difficult to drain.

One of the most important things you can do when you have a cold is get enough rest. There are several things you can do to help make that happen:

  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids throughout the day to keep yourself hydrated and keep mucus thin and flowing to lessen congestion.
  • Avoid caffeine. Too much caffeine from coffee, tea, or other foods and beverages can not only interfere with sleep but is dehydrating at a time when you need extra fluids. Additionally, caffeine can increase congestion. So sip herbal teas or decaffeinated regular tea or coffee instead.
  • Stay away from alcohol. Even when you're healthy, alcohol weakens your immune system and can interfere with sleep. When you have a cold, it can also interact with any medications you are taking and, like caffeine, contribute to dehydration.
  • Use a saline (salt water) nasal spray or neti pot before you go to bed. Be careful with medicated nose sprays because, after a few days, they can backfire from overuse and make congestion worse.
  • Run a humidifier or vaporizer in the room where you sleep.
  • Take a long, hot shower. The steam that collects in your bathroom will help moisten your nasal passages and clear out mucus.
  • Keep warm. Wrap yourself up in blankets. The cozier you feel, the easier it will be for you to fall asleep.
  • To help relieve sinus pain, lay a warm damp washcloth or compress over your face.
  • Sleep with your head elevated. Prop your head up on a pillow to help drain mucus.
  • Princeton University Health Services recommends that you take a cough suppressant medication that contains dextromethorphan if a cough is keeping you up at night. But because coughing is a natural, protective reflex, take suppressant medication only as a last resort.
  • Take analgesics such as acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen to relieve pain so that you can sleep.

If you have a medical condition such a high blood pressure or if you take any prescription medications, speak with your physician before taking any type of over- the-counter preparation for colds.

Dr. Liesa Harte reviewed this article.



Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide

Princeton University Health Services: Common Illnesses-Cold and Flu

University of Maryland Medical Center: Nasal Congestion