How to sleep when you have a respiratory illness

Sleeping when you are sick

Please note that this article has general advice only. If you are unwell, have a high fever or are struggling to breathe, visit your doctor or health care professional immediately. This article is intended to help people with a mild respiratory illness get restorative sleep. We do not recommend you use any treatments without consulting your doctor first. Nothing in this article claims to cure illness; it merely helps people get some rest.  This post may contain affiliate links.

Why is sleep so important when you have coronavirus?

Getting good quality sleep is vital for a person’s immune system.  Studies show that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to get sick after exposure to a virus.

Dr. Michael Breus, also known as the Sleep Doctor, states, ‘Making sure we consistently get a good night’s sleep is one of the best ways we can improve our immunity and defend against viruses and disease. Sleep is a natural immune booster.’

This means that getting the best sleep possible is crucial to help prevent and manage any illness, including respiratory ones, like COVID-19.

Sleeping allows your immune system to take the time to fully assess all threats to the body and design a response.  Research has shown that while you sleep, your body produces more T-cells, which are used to help the body destroy virus-carrying cells.  Sleep also supports the release and production of cytokines which help in essential cell-to-cell communication.

Sleep and the immune system

With all this in mind, we have put together some tips on getting a good night’s sleep while you have a respiratory illness, like a mild coronavirus case.

Getting sleep when you have a fever

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) name fever as one of the main symptoms of  COVID-19.  Body temperature greatly impacts a person’s ability to get to sleep and subsequent sleep quality.  Our circadian rhythm, which is known as our body clock, has an important role in temperature regulation.  A drop in the body’s temperature (1-2 degrees) is a cue to your body that it is time to sleep.  Of course, when you are running a fever, this cue can be impaired.

In this case, measures usually used to help someone with a fever will also assist with sleep.  The number one rule of a fever is to keep hydrated.  Throughout the day, make sure you drink water regularly, and at night have a glass of water next to your bed.  Staying hydrated is crucial for helping the body overcome illness and get proper sleep.  It can also help prevent your throat and nasal passages from drying out, which irritates them.

If you are struggling with hydration, try some Hydralyte or something similar for an added boost, but don’t stop drinking water.

Dress in light, natural fabrics when you go to bed.  Natural fabrics are breathable and allow the body to regulate its own temperature better.  Dressing in light sleepwear will help prevent you from overheating during the night. 

The same goes for sheets and bedding; having multiple light sheets and/or blankets will allow you to adjust your temperature quickly during the night.  Sleeping under a heavy, thick doona is likely to cause someone who already has a fever to overheat.

Natural bedding

Another way to cool your body before bed is to take a shower or bath.  The water should not be too hot but slightly warm, as cold water shocks the body too much.  If you choose to have a bath, consider adding a bath soak with magnesium to ease any muscle pain. 

Lastly, ensure the ambient temperature in your room is not too hot.  Research has shown that the ideal room temperature for adults to sleep should be just over 18°C (65°F).  If you think your room might be too warm, try putting on a fan.  Many people like the soothing noise of a fan while they are sleeping, and it has the added benefit of keeping the room cool.  If other people in your house are coughing, the white noise provided by a fan could also help to block out unwanted noises.

Getting sleep when you have a cough and breathing difficulties

According to the CDC, other possible symptoms of COVID-19 are coughing and breathing difficulties.  Coughing can be a real hindrance to a good night’s sleep, and unfortunately, coughs are often worse at night.

Sleeping on an incline can be an effective way to ease a cough at night.  Sinus pressure builds when your head is level with your body, and post-nasal drip collects in your throat, producing a cough.  If you prop your head up with a few extra pillows or a wedge pillow, gravity can help to keep your nose, chest and throat clearer.

We mentioned taking a bath or shower to cool down before bed.  This can also be great for easing a cough and breathing more clearly.  The steam from the hot bath or shower will help to loosen any mucus.

Another way to help with breathing difficulties and subsequently ease a cough is to have a humidifier or diffuser in your bedroom.  If you think that dry air in your room is exacerbating your cough, consider buying a good humidifier.  Just like in the shower, the steam will help to loosen any mucus. 

Diffusers will allow you to add essential oils to the steam.  We suggest Eucalyptus oil, Tea Tree oil, Peppermint oil and Thyme oil for helping with breathing difficulties during sleep.  Choose one of these or a mixture to suit your preferences.  Lavender essential oil is traditionally a favourite sleeping aid as it has calming and relaxing properties.  Try adding it to your breathe easy mixture for a floral addition.  Remember to clean your humidifier or vaporiser according to the instructions to prevent it from building up mould or bacteria.

Bedroom diffuser

If your location is naturally humid, stay away from the humidifier.  You can still get the advantages of essential oils, though.  Try putting a few drops on a tissue or cloth under your pillow or put some in a spray bottle with water and spray it in your room and on your bedding before bedtime.

If snoring is a problem for you while unwell, try sleeping on your side rather than your back.  Sleeping on your back creates a narrower passage for air to get through, making snoring worse.  If this is not a problem for you, and you feel comfortable on your back, go for it.  Try out a few sleeping positions and see what is best for you.

Avoid technology before bedtime

Blue light is emitted from our devices (computers, smartphones, tablets) and artificial lighting.  Blue light is a natural trigger for your mind to be awake, as it suppresses melatonin production.  This means that taking in a lot of blue light through your eyes at bedtime can have a devastating effect on your sleep patterns.  Although this is general sleep advice, it is important for people who feel unwell to avoid blue light and get the best sleep possible.

When you are sick, you may be tempted to lay in bed to get some work done on your laptop or scroll through social media on your phone.  Avoid doing this as much as possible for an hour before your sleep time.  If you feel the need to use a device, turn the screen brightness down as low as possible and activate ‘night mode’ or something similar, if possible.  For computers, consider the free software f.lux, which will turn down the blue light on your screen at night.

No technology in bed

Give yourself the best chance of getting deep, restorative sleep by having a dark sleeping environment without technological distractions.

Optimising your sleep environment when you are sick

If you have a contagious disease, like COVID-19, it is best to sleep alone.  This helps to prevent your sleeping partner from getting sick and allows both people to get a more restful night’s sleep.  This will not always be possible, but if it is, then we recommend it.

If you have an illness that could be contagious it is important to wash your bedding regularly.  This will help to protect others in your family.  It might also help you with breathing and consequently help you recover quicker.  Allergens such as dust mites or pet hair can lurk in your bedding and if you are susceptible to allergies, unclean bedding could exacerbate coronavirus symptoms.

Although, it may be the last thing you feel like doing, wash your bedding at least once a week and more if you can.

Lastly, stock up your bedside table with things you might need during the night.  This way, you won’t have to wander around in the night looking for things, which would be a hassle and might disrupt others in the house.

Here’s a checklist of things to keep at your bedside while you are sick:

  • Tissues
  • A bin or bag to put used tissues in
  • A cup of water
  • Any medication recommended by your health care professional
  • A book – if you can’t sleep read a book rather than looking at your smartphone
  • A phone – in case of a medical emergency (not for looking at while you are trying to sleep)
  • Glasses – if you need them to read
Bedside Table Checklist for when you are sick
Getting sleep when you have coronavirus
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6 replies
    • TheDeepSleepCo says:

      Thank you. We were very mindful not to create any panic. It’s simply designed to help people sleep when they have a flu or virus.


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