Saline is a safer bet than over-the-counter or prescription spray nasal decongestants, says Bradley Marple, MD, professor of otolaryngology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. Although topical decongestants effectively reduce congestion, versions that contain pseudoephedrine may cause sleeplessness and agitation.
“You may be able to breathe easier but not be able to fall asleep,” Marple says.
Doctors have another concern about nasal decongestant sprays. Some, when overused, cause a rebound effect, called rhinitis medicamentosa. Instead of relieving congestion, the drug begins to cause the problem it’s designed to treat. When people go on using the spray, they get caught in a vicious cycle and can become addicted to the medication.
“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.