Don’t Let Allergies Wreck Your Sleep
A runny nose and itchy eyes can keep you up at night. But allergy meds might leave you too wired to sleep.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Take these steps to get your snooze on.
First step: Figure out your allergy triggers and avoid them. Things like dust mites, pet dander, and pollen are often high on the list.
Then remake your bed. You can get pillows and bedding that can prevent sneezes and sniffles. Look for items that say “hypoallergenic.” Because dust mites are a huge cause of allergies, get pillow and mattress covers that keep the critters at bay.
If your pets share the bedroom or bed with you, it’s time to find them a new place to sleep.
Check your home’s heating and air system. If you can upgrade to a unit that does a better job at air filtration, think about it.
Otherwise, vacuum your carpets and furniture often. If you haven’t upgraded the vacuum lately, do. Today’s models are built to capture allergens, not just stir them up.
If you use a humidifier, change the water regularly. That prevents mold, another allergy trigger, from growing.
Treat Your Allergies
Some treatments that can also help include:
Saline nasal flushes. You’ll use a device like a Neti pot to pour a solution into one nostril and let it drain out the other. It can help relieve congestion, but the effects may not last long.
Steroid nasal sprays. Their role is to stop your immune system from overreacting to allergy triggers. They may take a while to work, but they’re often the first medicine recommended to help prevent symptoms.
Antihistamines . Use them to dry up your runny nose and postnasal drip. Keep an eye out for side effects like dizziness, blurred vision, and a “hangover effect” that makes you sleepy the next morning. Don’t use them long-term, either.
Nasal decongestant sprays. They clear your stuffy nose, but don’t use them for more than 3 days. After that, they can make you more stopped up.
Nasal decongestant pills or liquids. These also work well and can give you long-lasting relief, but you may not want to use them at night. Some can keep you awake, especially those with pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine.
If your allergies keep you from getting the sleep you need, or if medication side effects bother you, talk to your doctor or see an allergist for a complete exam and treatment options.
Treating Allergies at Night
If allergies are keeping you awake at night, you’re not alone.
In one study, only 17% of patients with allergies rated their sleep as optimal. About half of all people in the study said allergies and nasal congestion woke them up at night and also made it hard to fall asleep.
Why does it matter?
- Sleep deprivation is a stress that has significant consequences, such as high blood pressure and heart complications, as well as psychological consequences.
- Sleep deprivation affects every part of your life from your relationships to your ability to think and be productive to your income.
How are allergies linked with sleep deprivation?
So what’s the problem with allergies and how are they linked to sleep deprivation? WebMD asked William E. Berger, MD, MBA, professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine, to explain more about allergies and the resulting sleep deprivation. Berger is past president of the American College of Allergy and Immunology and author of Allergies and Asthma for Dummies.
“With nasal allergies, there are four things that happen when an allergic reaction occurs,” says Berger. “There’s sneezing, itching, runny nose and mucus formation, and then nasal congestion and swelling of the mucous membranes.”
Berger explains to WebMD that when these four reactions occur with allergies, they can cause a host of other breathing problems that result in sleep deprivation.
As an example, as soon as you crawl in bed prepared to get a good night’s sleep, you realize that you can’t breathe through your nose. So, you position yourself differently on the pillows and just as you get comfortable and find a good breathing position, postnasal drip (thick mucus) starts to collect in the back of your throat, causing you to cough — and cough. The more you cough and try to breathe through your congested nose, the more miserable you feel.
Thus, all night long, you toss and turn and cough and snore instead of sleeping. The next day, you awaken feeling exhausted and irritable because your allergies have wreaked havoc with normal sleep.
Which allergy medications can help nighttime allergy symptoms?
Two types of allergy medications may help nighttime allergies. “Antihistamines may help with sneezing and postnasal drip,” Berger says, while decongestant medications help with the stuffiness and nasal congestion.”
But Berger also suggests that a better approach to treating allergies might be the inhaled nasal steroids and intranasal antihistamines. “These inhaled nasal puffs and sprays address all four allergy symptoms of sneezing, itching, runny nose and mucus formation, and nasal congestion and swelling of the mucous membranes.”
If you try the inhaled nasal steroids, Berger advises taking these two weeks before pollen season begins to prevent allergy symptoms. You may plan on staying on inhaled nasal steroids for months, if needed, to keep allergies at bay and avoid sleep deprivation.
If you’re allergic to your pet, Berger suggests seeing an allergist before you consider giving away the family dog or cat.
“Many things can trigger symptoms of allergies such as nasal congestion, even nonallergic rhinitis caused by changes in temperature or weather. See an allergist to find out if you truly have allergies before making drastic changes at home.”
Can nasal saline rinses help reduce allergies?
Arizona-based pulmonologist Paul Enright, MD, has had allergies since childhood. During allergy seasons, when his nose gets clogged with mucus and he has postnasal drainage, he uses a salt water sinus rinse, often during an evening shower, in order to keep his nasal passages clear throughout the night.
It’s important to note that, according to the CDC, if you are irrigating, flushing, or rinsing your sinuses, use distilled, sterile, or previously boiled water to make up the irrigation solution. It’s also important to rinse the irrigation device (such as a neti pot or suction bulb) after each use and leave open to air dry.
“If your nose is clogged, you have to breathe through your mouth all night. This eliminates the natural air conditioning function of the nose and may cause restless sleeping,” Enright says.
When grass and weed pollen levels are high in Arizona, to reduce inflammation and congestion in his nose, he also uses a prescription nasal corticosteroid spray about 1/2 hour after the sinus rinse.
“It’s important to point nose sprays towards the center of your head, not towards your eyebrows. The sinuses and inner ears drain deep inside your nose, and that’s where you want the nose spray to be concentrated for maximum benefit.”
Enright also recommends drinking more water, which works to thin mucus. Thin mucus does not stick to the back of the throat and cause postnasal drip. You’ll know that you’re well-hydrated if you’re hitting the bathroom frequently.
How do you find out what’s causing your allergies?
Enright suggests that you become an allergen “sleuth” to find out which allergens are causing your symptoms. If your allergies only happen at nighttime, perhaps you are allergic to something in your bedroom.
The most common allergens in bedrooms are microscopic house dust mites which live in bedding.
If the humidity in your bedroom is above 40%, molds may be growing in the carpet, bedding, and upholstered furniture.
If there is a smoker in your home, your nose and sinuses are probably becoming congested due to your inhaling secondhand smoke at night. A HEPA room air purifier running in your bedroom will remove the smoke.
If you are unsure about the cause of your allergy symptoms, get a skin test or a blood test to identify the allergens that cause your problems.
What’s the link between allergies and sleep apnea?
If you feel sleep deprived, it may be that your nasal allergies cause you to snore at night. In addition to snoring interrupting your sleep, sometimes snoring is a warning sign of the more serious problem of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
With obstructive sleep apnea, you may snore and also have periods of suspension of breathing, called apneas. The apneas are due to an obstruction of the upper airway at the base of the tongue.
If your doctor suspects you’re at risk for obstructive sleep apnea, he or she may refer you for a sleep study (polysomnography), which is done at an accredited sleep center.
The sleep test will give your doctor information about oxygen drops associated with obstructive sleep apnea or other breathing problems.
If you are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor will talk to you about weight loss and nightly use of CPAP, continuous airway pressure. With CPAP, you wear a custom-fitted nasal mask during sleep that’s connected to the continuous airway pressure machine. The continuous airway pressure helps prevent further narrowing or collapse of your airway, so you can get the sleep you need to feel rested.
Sleepy Time Tips to Decrease Allergies and Sleep Deprivation
During the deepest level of sleep, your body is revitalized and tissue damage is repaired. Sleep helps restore the body and strengthens the immune system. Yet difficulty sleeping may accentuate your allergy symptoms, making a congested nose feel even worse.
To get sounder sleep, it takes a combination of steps, including nasal saline irrigation, allergy medicine, and lifestyle measures, says Murray Grossan, MD, a Los Angeles-based ENT and author of The Sinus Cure. Grossan offers these tips:
Watch your diet and avoid drinking caffeine and alcohol for at least six hours before bedtime.
- Check your medications, as some allergy medicines can cause insomnia or nervousness. The ingredients and side effects are listed on the medication label.
- Consider taking an antihistamine like diphenhydramine (brand name Benadryl) at night. It causes drowsiness in many people.
- Get regular exercise for sounder sleep, but don’t exercise at night as it may keep you keyed up. Try to exercise outside during the early morning hours to gain the extra benefit of natural sunlight. This helps to set your body’s natural circadian rhythm for regular sleep.
- Keep the windows closed in the bedroom to keep out pollen and nighttime dampness.
- Raise the head of your bed a few inches. The higher the head, the less the nasal congestion with allergies.
Remember, if you have allergies, your body thermostat is off, says Grossan. “If there’s any chilling whatsoever, your body will respond with sneezing, nasal congestion, and hacking.” Keep your bedroom comfortably warm and sip warm decaffeinated drinks before bedtime to stay warm.”
9 Ways to Sleep Better During Allergy Season
When you throw sleep deprivation on top of some already unpleasant symptoms, you’re practically guaranteed to feel less than optimal for the next few months. The good news is that with a little bit of effort, you can turn your bedroom into an allergen-free zone — and get more of the symptom-free rest you crave. Here’s how.
1. Keep your indoor air clean.
Staying indoors is a great way to escape pollen. Unless the air inside your home is dirty, too — and for most of us, that’s usually the case. Household dust, pet hair and dander, and allergens tracked in from outside can contribute to allergies in the house.
To keep your indoor air as clean as possible, use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in your bedroom, and make sure the windows are shut to keep any new gunk from floating in. If you have forced air conditioning or heating, use high-efficiency filters to keep them from blowing dust everywhere.
Regularly inspect window and door seals if outdoor allergens are a problem, and if you suspect mold anywhere in your home, contact a certified contractor or mold removal technician. Air-purifying plants like aloe or English ivy, which breathe in toxins and breathe out fresh oxygen, can help improve indoor air quality, too.
2. Crank up the dehumidifier.
Warm, moist air is a breeding ground for allergy-triggering mold, mildew, dust mites, and bacteria. According to the U.S. Enviromental Protection Agency, ideal indoor humidity is between 30 percent and 50 percent. In rainy and humid environments, keeping a dehumidifier in your bedroom helps suck out some of the moisture so it’s harder for allergens and mold to grow.
Of course, arid climates and too-dry conditions can contribute to sore throats, itchy skin and itchy eyes, even raising risk of sinus infections. A cool mist or ultrasonic humidifier can help balance conditions out when the air gets too dry.
3. Keep your sheets squeaky clean.
Washing your bed sheets regularly is key to sleeping well during allergy season, yet most people only get around to stripping the bed every 10 to 14 days. According to experts, that isn’t frequently enough to keep your sheets relatively free from the dust, pollen, dead skin, and God-knows-what-else that’s making you sneeze.
Instead, aim to launder your sheets at least once a week. And to make sure they’re really decontaminated, always wash them with the hottest water possible. Same goes for fabric curtains. For upholstered furniture and carpet, vacuuming once weekly or more is also important.
4. Consider anti-allergy bedding.
Regularly washing your blankets, sheets, and pillowcases helps keep surface-level allergens out of your bed — and out of your respiratory system. But even with frequent laundering, gunk can still make its way into your mattress, where it’s almost impossible to get out.
Anti-allergy bedding uses technologically advanced fabrics that stop the pollen, dust, and dirt from creeping into your mattress, resulting in less nighttime irritation. It’s also wise to skip feathers and wool that can’t be regularly laundered, since they can harbor more dust than synthetic fibers.
5. Give Fido the nighttime boot.
You probably work hard all day to keep your allergies from flaring up. But in the time it takes for Fluffy to hop into your bed, all of your anti-allergy effort goes out the window.
Because their thick fur is a veritable magnet for stuff like pollen, dirt, and dust, dogs and cats are basically walking allergen fur balls. (Indoor cats are still major sources of dander, so they’re not immune to the problem, either.) So do yourself a favor and keep all animals out of the bedroom during allergy season. (If they need help getting used to the idea, try these tricks.)
6. Shower at night instead of in the morning.
By the end of the day, your hair, skin, and clothes are covered in an invisible layer of pollen and dust from time spent outside. And those allergens are irritating the heck out of your eyes, nasal passages, and lungs.
Shower at night and slip into fresh clothing, and you wash all that stuff down the drain so it doesn’t end up in your bed. And since the steam from the hot water will help to ease nasal stuffiness (try adding some eucalyptus oil for extra decongestion power), it’s really a win-win.
7. Skip the nightcap.
You’ve probably heard that booze can lead to fragmented sleep, but that’s not the only reason you should consider abstaining before bed. Research has shown that alcohol can make common hay fever symptoms like sneezing, itching, and coughing even more uncomfortable, particularly for women. Skip the drink, and you’ll sleep — and breathe — easier.
8. But not your nighttime meds.
If you take short-acting allergy medications (read: not the 24-hour kind) in the morning, their effects have probably worn off by the time you’re getting ready for bed. Forget to take another dose, though, and you’re likely in for a night of sleep-stealing sniffles. Have a hard time keeping track of when it’s time to take your pills? The free Dosecast app is an easy way to remember to take your meds on time, every time.
9. Know when it’s time for a new mattress and pillows.
The older your mattress and pillows get, the more dust, skin cells, sweat, and body oils get trapped inside of them — especially if you haven’t been using a mattress protector.
If you’re one of the 20 million Americans who are allergic to the dust mites that love to feed on dead skin, you could be making your allergies a whole lot worse with outdated sleep surfaces. Experts recommend replacing your pillows around every six months, while a mattress will usually last 5 to 10 years depending on type and quality.
The bedroom is where most people spend the majority of time at home, so for allergy sufferers it is worth the effort to make sure it’s a sleep sanctuary rather than an allergy asylum. By paying attention to indoor air and surfaces and taking measures to reduce allergens from intruding on your slumber, you can minimize symptoms and help yourself sleep a little better this allergy season.