How to sleep when you have a cold – quick tips from a sleep doctor

How to sleep when you have a cold: A woman in a red top sleeps in bed next to a pile of used tissues because she has a cold
(Image credit: Getty)

Sleep boosts your immune system, reduces inflammation in the body and helps you recover faster. But how can you get some proper shut-eye when you have a raging cold? Whether it’s a razor-blade throat or a runny or stuffy nose, learning how to sleep with a cold isn’t easy but there are things that can help. 

How to sleep with a cold

Sleep with the head of your bed elevated or stack your pillows

Use a nasal hygiene regimen at night before bed

Try to keep to a somewhat regular sleep schedule

Make sure your sleep environment is cool and dark

Prepping your nose and throat before retiring for the night (or for a nap), for example, can boost your chances of getting some restorative shut-eye. For guidance, we asked Dr Katherine Green, Medical Director of the UCHealth Sleep Medicine Clinic in Colorado, for some advice on how to sleep with a cold. 

“When you have a ‘cold’ (generally an upper respiratory infection) it tends to be associated with multiple symptoms that can have negative impacts on your sleep" explains Dr Green.

“Nasal congestion, fever, cough, body aches and daytime fatigue or napping during the day are all things that can have negative impacts on your ability to sleep well at night.” 

Before we get into Dr Green's recommendations, remember: always speak to your doctor or healthcare professional if you have any concerns about your symptoms or if they are getting worse. Some cold symptoms are the same as Covid symptoms, so it pays to be cautious.

How to sleep with a cold and a stuffy nose

“Treating the nasal congestion that comes along with a cold before you go to bed at night can definitely improve sleep on those nights," Dr Green reveals. "Using a nasal saline rinse followed by a nasal steroid spray before bed can be beneficial and reduce some of the inflammation associated with having a cold."

A woman with dark hair sits up in bed blowing her nose because she has a cold

(Image credit: Getty)

If your nasal congestion is severe, Dr Green recommends sprays but there are some caveats: “For severe nasal congestion, using Afrin or a similar nasal decongestant spray for a very SHORT period of time may be beneficial for a night or two.

"Those types of sprays should never be used for more than two to three days in a row as they will actually cause more severe rebound congestion and dependence on those types of sprays, which are highly addictive.”

How to sleep with a runny nose

What about if you have a runny nose instead? Constantly waking up to blow or wipe your trickling nose isn't fun and it leads to very broken sleep, which in turns makes you feel worse the next day.

Here's how Dr Green would handle it: “As above, the best nasal hygiene regimen that is very safe but also very effective is to use a nasal saline rinse followed by a nasal steroid spray (both over the counter remedies). Using a humidifier at night also helps to decrease nasal congestion that comes from dryness and irritation.”

How to sleep when you have a sore throat

Trying to get some restorative shut-eye when you have a throat full of razor blades is pretty tough. Just swallowing salvia hurts, so your chances of sleeping well are slim – but not impossible. 

“It is definitely a challenge!" Admits Dr Green. “Icing the throat with either cold water or ice chips can help reduce inflammation, and throat lozenges may provide some topical relief.

“Sleeping with the head of the bed elevated can also help significantly with both throat and nasal irritation.” If you have an adjustable bed, this is easy to do (simply push a button). For the rest of us, stacking bed pillows is the next best thing...

A person stacks two white bed pillows on a bed

(Image credit: Getty)

Stack your bed pillows to raise your head

“Sleeping with your head of bed elevated (ideally 30 degrees or more) can help with both nasal and throat irritation. First, it helps to reduce the increased blood flow that occurs in those areas when you lay flat – by decreasing this blood flow you help to minimize inflammation and swelling in the area.

“Second, when the nose and throat are irritated or swollen, it can increase the severity of snoring or sleep apnea. Sleeping with your head elevated helps to minimize this effect, and may improve the snoring that is often seen with nasal congestion or URI symptoms.”

Take a shower before bed and prep your room

“A hot shower helps to provide steam, which can loosen the mucus, crusting and inflammation that come along with nasal congestion and nasal swelling when you have a cold.”

Wondering whether your bedroom should be kept cooler or or warmer when you have a cold? “Generally, the best sleep environments are cool and dark, because body temperature is one of the things that regulates our sleep-wake cycle.

"Body temperature should be at its lowest throughout the night and into the early morning. Sleeping in a cool room is always best to promote good sleep quality.”

How to get your bedroom ready for sleep

As Dr Green recommends, a cool and dark bedroom is always best for sleep, regardless of whether you have a cold or not. If you own a smart thermostat, you could schedule it to a sleep-friendly temperature of between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit in the hour before you go to bed.

A woman sits up in bed drinking a bedtime time to help her sleep better

(Image credit: Getty)

Dimming the lights at night will also prepare your body for sleep, but when it comes to sleep you should aim for total blackout if possible. Basically, the less light pollution in your bedroom, the better your chances of snoozing.

Feeling comfy also boosts your chances of sleeping with a cold, so make sure your favorite comforter is on the bed and that your pillows are plumped and covered with fresh linen. 

Some people like to add a few drops of eucalyptus to their pillow cases to help with congestion, but read the care label on your cases and check that adding such oils won’t ruin the material. 

Sleep is vital for health and wellbeing, so if you feel that your current bed is a barrier to good snoozing, take a look at our best mattress guide for the latest picks for every budget. If yours just needs a little extra comfort, also read our guide to the best mattress toppers for breathing new life into older beds.

Ultimately, take the time you need to properly recover from your cold so that it doesn't linger and you feel better sooner, and always speak to your healthcare professional if you have any concerns or if your symptoms worsen.

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Claire Davies
Senior Sleep Editor, Certified Sleep Science Coach

Claire Davies is Tom's Guide's mattress expert and main sleep product tester with over 15 years' product review experience, and she is responsible for all mattress and sleep coverage on the site. A qualified journalist, Sleep Editor and Certified Sleep Science Coach, Claire writes about all things related to sleep, from mattress reviews to the latest sleep techniques and research. Claire has interviewed a wealth of experts, from mattress designers and innovators to neuroscientists and doctors of sleep medicine. Before taking on the role of Sleep Editor, Claire worked as Health & Wellness Editor at Top Ten Reviews, and before that was a Senior Content Editor at T3. Claire is super-passionate about how consistent, good quality sleep can boost our physical and mental wellbeing, and would love to hear from PRs and brands regarding sleep products, services and research that can help our readers sleep better than ever.