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Cold Relief: 6 Sleep Tips to Help You Breathe Easier

Here's how to ease your symptoms, improve your sleep, and help yourself get well sooner.


“If you have to use a nasal decongestant, stop after 3 days and throw the bottle away,” Marple says.

Prescription sleeping pills may also be a bad idea when you have a cold. “Sleeping pills can exacerbate upper respiratory obstruction in people with sleep apnea, which is a common problem for people who are overweight or obese,” says Michael Thorpy, MD, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

If a cold is the reason you’re having trouble sleeping, he says, it’s far better to treat the symptoms of the cold than take a sleeping pill.

4. Elevate the Head of the Bed

One common recommendation is to prop your head up on pillows to help sinuses drain more easily. “Bad advice,” Thorpy says. “By bending your neck at an unnatural position, you can actually make it harder to breathe.”

Instead, use a large, wedge-shaped pillow that raises the upper body from the waist up. Or raise the head of the bed by placing bricks, books, or a telephone directory under the legs. Don’t raise it more than 6 inches, however, or the tilt will make you slide out of bed. The slight incline causes blood to flow away from the head and thus reduces inflammation of the air passages.

5. Apply a Mentholated Gel

This is another venerable treatment that remains popular. And it may help, although not the way many people once thought.

“Studies have shown that menthol doesn’t actually open up the airways,” Marple says. “Instead, the cooling sensation it causes makes people feel as if they’re breathing more freely. And let’s face it, that’s what’s important when you’re trying to treat the symptoms of a cold.”

6. Sleep on Schedule

“When cold symptoms make it tough to sleep, paying attention to the basic rules of good sleep hygiene is more important than ever,” Neubauer says.

By now most of us know the basics:

  • Go to bed and wake up on a regular schedule. (That way, when bedtime rolls around, you’re in the habit of going to sleep.)
  • Avoid stimulating beverages like caffeinated coffee or alcohol in the hours before going to sleep.
  • Reserve your bed for sleep, not a place to work, read, or watch TV.
  • And if you do find yourself tossing and turning, get out of bed (and the bedroom, if possible) so you don’t associate bed with insomnia. Do something that you find relaxing until you feel tired enough to go to sleep.

Good sleep hygiene can be as effective as prescription drugs in helping some people sleep, experts say.

Getting enough shut-eye may be especially critical during cold and flu season, according to a 2009 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The researchers enlisted 153 volunteers who agreed to be quarantined and then exposed to the viruses that cause most colds. Those who slept less than 7 hours were almost three times more likely to develop colds than those who got 8 hours of sleep or more.

Reviewed on October 03, 2013

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