Sleeping when sick is potentially difficult but essential. A good night’s sleep is important for health, and a person’s health also affects how much sleep they need.
The amount of sleep that people generally need varies depending on age, activity level, health status, and other factors.
In this article, we look at how to sleep when sick, how much sleep is appropriate, and when to see a doctor.
The following techniques can help people sleep when they are sick:
- Over-the-counter medications: Cold and flu remedies, as well as pain relievers, can provide relief from symptoms that could keep people awake. People can check the ingredients to make sure that the product does not contain caffeine, pseudoephedrine, or other stimulants.
- Avoid alcohol: While alcohol can make people feel sleepy at first, it interferes with the quality of sleep.
- Elevate the head: Using pillows to keep the head raised higher than usual can reduce postnasal drip, coughing, and other respiratory symptom flare-ups.
- Moisturize the air: Dry air can make coughs, colds, and other respiratory symptoms worse, interfering with sleep. People can keep the nasal passages open by drinking hot beverages, taking hot showers or baths, and using a humidifier or vaporizer in the bedroom.
- Prepare the bedroom: It can be helpful to keep the room as dark and quiet as possible and place a variety of blankets within reach of the bed to accommodate both fever and chills.
It is important to stay well-hydrated when sick, but cutting down on liquids for at least 1 hour before going to sleep can reduce the need for nighttime visits to the bathroom.
Generally, treating the symptoms of an illness, such as a cough or fever, may help make it easier to sleep and improve sleep quality.
When people are sick, they are not likely to wake up feeling particularly rested. One recommendation is to try to add 1 hour of sleep a night to usual sleep times, along with at least one, if not two, naps during the day.
At a minimum, to support full recovery from an illness, people should strive to get the daily amount of recommended sleep for people their age:
- 0–3 months: 14–17 hours, including naps
- 4–11 months: 12–16 hours, including naps
- 1–2 years: 11–14 hours, including naps
- 3–5 years: 10–13 hours, including naps
- 6–12 years: 9–12 hours
- 13–18 years: 8–10 hours
- 18–64 years: 7–9 hours
- 65 and older: 7–8 hours
Researchers have found that most health problems increase the body’s sleep requirements. They have also noted links between sleep and immune system function.
For example, studies have found that it is important to get enough sleep after receiving a vaccine because doing so enhances the body’s response to it.
The link between health and sleep works both ways, as researchers have also associated not getting enough sleep with a host of short- and long-term health problems. These range from heightened irritability to high blood pressure to more rapid growth of tumors.
These links are multifaceted and complex. Researchers are currently exploring how infectious agents or stress stimulates the immune system, which sets in motion the physical reactions that lead people to feel sleepy.
If there is no improvement in symptoms after a few days of rest, medical help may be necessary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that people consult a doctor if they:
- are having a hard time breathing
- have a fever that improves and then gets worse
- experience pressure in the chest
- are not urinating
- feel consistently and severely weak, unsteady, and dizzy
Being very sleepy when regularly getting the 7–9 hours of sleep that experts recommend could be a sign of an underlying condition. For example, sleep apnea can cause poor quality sleep, while depression or heart disease can increase the need for sleep.
Along with eating a well-balanced diet and doing plenty of exercise, getting enough sleep is an essential part of a healthful lifestyle. It becomes particularly important when a person is sick.
Treating the specific symptoms of a sickness, such as managing a headache with pain relievers or easing congestion with a humidifier, may aid restful sleep.
In general, when adults are sick, they should try to get more sleep than the recommended 7–9 hours a night for healthy adults.