A hacking cough, a throbbing head, a sore throat, and a nose so
stuffed it feels as if you'll never breathe free and clear again. You've got a
cold -- or maybe even the flu -- and all you want to do is
crawl in bed and sleep.
Until you get there. That's when you realize your symptoms are turning any chance
for a solid night's rest into the impossible dream.
Questions & Answers about the 2009–2010 Flu Season
What sort of flu season is expected this year?
Flu seasons are unpredictable in a number of ways, including the timing of
the beginning, severity, and length of the flu season.
This flu season (2009-2010), there are more uncertainties than usual because
of the emergence of a new 2009 H1N1
influenza virus (previously called "novel H1N1" or "swine flu") that has
caused the first influenza pandemic (global outbreak of disease) in more than
"It's true that many cold and flu
symptoms seem to get worse at night, and they can interfere with sleep just
at the critical time when your body needs rest the most," says WebMD sleep
expert Michael Breus, PhD, director of TheSleepDoctor.org.
But how and why does this happen?
In addition to the pure discomfort of the symptoms themselves, Breus
explains that increased mucus production, along with overall congestion, forces
us to breathe through our mouth instead of our nose. When we lie down,
congestion can seem worse.
Tufts University sleep expert Edwin Trayner, MD, explains that mouth
breathing also irritates airways, causing us to cough more often, which in turn
can also disrupt sleep.
"Plus, when we are sick our body releases certain cytokines [immune
factors] into the bloodstream, some of which are mediators of sleep. So that
can also have a disrupting influence," says Trayner, director of the sleep
disorders center at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston and an
assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.
The end result, say experts, is you toss and turn all night. And even if you
do fall asleep, you wake up feeling drained and tired, with cold and flu
symptoms seemingly worse.
For Better Sleep, Choose Cold Drugs Wisely
Although many of us turn to cold medicines at night, they may not always
help you sleep better. In fact, depending on what you choose, it might actually
make things temporarily worse.
"Everybody can react to these medicines differently. For some they can
bring on sleepiness, but others may find it makes them feel jittery and nervous
and actually keep them from falling asleep or staying asleep," says
Nicholas Popovich, PhD, professor of pharmacy administration and department
head at the University of Chicago at Illinois College of Pharmacy.
Among the ingredients Popovich says are most likely to keep you up at night:
pseudoephedrine, a decongestant commonly found in cold pills and some cough
medicines. This can make some people jittery.
Another common ingredient, diphenhydramine, found in Benadryl and many other
all-purpose cold and allergy medications, can have a paradoxical effect --
making some sleepy, others not.
"Until you know how you personally react, it's best to avoid them after
6 p.m., particularly if you have to be at work the next day," says
Fortunately, there are other things you can try. To unclog that stuffy nose
before bedtime, Popovich recommends a topical nasal spray decongestant.