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How Do Allergies Affect Our Sleep and How to Fight Them?

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If you find yourself struggling to navigate better sleep with allergies, we’re here to help. An allergic reaction is one of the many ways people can lose out on valuable sleep, and the bed space you occupy could, in fact, trigger allergy symptoms or ideally, help prevent them.

By understanding the relationship between allergies and sleep, you’ll be better equipped to help improve both. In this article, we’ll provide you with an in-depth overview of allergies and sleep, including sleep issues that can arise from allergies, the allergens that most commonly affect sleep, and useful tips for sleeping better with allergies.

How Allergies Impact Sleep

If you’re one of the more than 100 million people[1] in this country who deals with allergies each year, you know how difficult they can make your daily life, let alone your sleep. Common symptoms of allergies include coughing, sneezing, hives, rashes, itchy eyes, runny nose, and scratchy throat. These things are hard enough to deal with during the day, but for many folks with allergies, symptoms tend to get even worse at night.

This can be because of allergens present in the bedroom or on the bedding (like dust and pet dander), or because of the position you’re in. When we lie down on our backs, for example, blood flow increases to the head, which, unfortunately, also increases congestion[2].

To top it off, certain allergy medications can also interfere with sleep, so it’s no surprise that people with allergies often report trouble falling or staying asleep, insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, and snoring[3].

What Sleep Issues Can Allergies Cause?

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep – People with allergies are more likely to have trouble falling or staying asleep through the night3. This can be caused by increased congestion, which makes it harder to breathe, causing the body to wake up, or it can be caused by a persistent cough through the night. Either way, these unpleasant symptoms make for a restless night’s sleep and can lead to daytime drowsiness[4] and decreased cognitive function the next day.
  • Insomnia – With insomnia, you’ll have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, getting good quality sleep, or some combination of the three. Research[5] shows that allergy symptoms like nasal congestion can lead to insomnia, which then has an impact on a person’s cognitive, mental, and physical health.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea – Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. When you sleep, the muscles in the back of your throat relax, but for people with obstructive sleep apnea, the relaxing of the throat muscles leads to airways that are too tight to let in enough air. For those with congestion, this is much more likely. The result is, the body wakes up suddenly throughout the night in order to breathe normally again.
  • SnoringSnoring[6] is common, and most people will snore at some point or another. Like obstructive sleep apnea, snoring is caused by the muscles in your throat and mouth relaxing as you sleep, which for snorers, leads to a partially blocked airway and the noise that comes with it. This is more likely to occur for those with allergies, who will have congestion or inflammation in the throat and nasal area. Explore our picks for the best mattress for snoring.

Top Allergens that Impact Sleep

Dust Mites

Dust mites[7] are microscopic bugs, closely related to ticks and spiders. They live off of skin cells that people shed, and if that’s not terrifying enough, they tend to thrive in warm, humid environments, like bedding, furniture, and carpet.

The enzymes in both their feces and their hard shells are what cause allergy symptoms[8], including sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, congestion, itchy nose, cough, etc. Dust mites can also contribute to asthma symptoms7.

If you’re allergic to dust mites, getting rid of them is the place to begin treating your allergies. According to the American Lung Association[9], the best way to get rid of these tiny bugs is to wash your bedding in hot water once a week and reduce clutter like pillows and stuffed animals. You can also reduce the humidity in your home, replace old carpets, and vacuum and dust regularly. Getting rid of dust means getting rid of dust mites.

Pollen

Many people with seasonal allergies are reacting to either pollen or mold in the air. Pollen is that fine, yellowish powder that we see floating through the air or dusting our vehicles in the springtime. It is essentially how trees, grass, and weeds procreate, sending their tiny pollen grains out into the world.

Unfortunately, this essential part of nature can cause allergy symptoms[10]in humans (and other animals) like sneezing, congestion, runny nose, watery eyes, itching, and wheezing. This happens because when pollen enters your body, the immune system[11] can mistakenly identify it as a threat. The chemicals your body releases in response can lead to those common symptoms.

Pet Dander

Pet dander is dead flakes of skin on your pet – most commonly, a cat or a dog. When we have a pet dander allergy, our immune systems are reacting to breathing in that pet dander, identifying it as a threat, and again, trying to attack that threat. This can lead to symptoms[12] like sneezing, runny nose, itching, nasal congestion, watery eyes, cough, facial pressure, and asthma.

Mammals, including people, are constantly shedding dead skin[13] and fur (or hair), so you really can’t do anything to stop your pet from doing this. Luckily, there are certain allergy medications that you can take to minimize symptoms, and you can adopt certain breeds that shed less, though no dog is truly hypoallergenic12. Also, if you want to help prevent your children from developing pet allergies, research shows that exposing them to pets early on should help.

Mold

There is always some level of mold[14] in the air we breathe, both indoors and outdoors. This only becomes a problem when mold levels are high, or when people have hypersensitive immune systems. In this case, their immune system will once again register the mold as a threat, and try to attack it.

Symptoms of a mold allergy[15] include coughing, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and throat, and dry skin. Some people experience symptoms year-round, and others experience them only during certain times of the year (for example, when it’s damp outside) or in spaces that have high concentrations of mold.

Household Product

According to the American Lung Association[16], certain household and cleaning products include harmful chemicals that can cause allergic reactions and respiratory problems. Some of these products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals that vaporize at room temperature, and they are dangerous for our health.

Some common products that include VOCs and other toxic chemicals include air fresheners, aerosol sprays, chlorine bleach, certain detergents and dishwashing liquids, dry cleaning chemicals, rug cleaners, furniture and floor polish, oven cleaners, and even soaps, shampoos, and conditioners[16]. Studies[17] show that early exposure to these sorts of chemicals can even cause lifelong asthma and respiratory issues.

Cockroaches

A cockroach allergy is very similar to a dust mite allergy. Roches’ saliva, feces, and shedding body parts can trigger asthma and allergy symptoms[18] like coughing, congestion, skin rash, wheezing, ear infection, or sinus infection. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, about 63 percent of homes in the U.S. have cockroach allergens, a number that goes up to between 78 and 98 percent in more urban areas[18].

Cigarette Smoke

According to the Advanced ENT and Allergy Center[19], cigarette smoke is not technically an allergen like mold or pollen because it doesn’t trigger the immune system. However, it is certainly considered an irritant as it can cause symptoms that mimic allergies like difficulty breathing, watery eyes, coughing, and sneezing.

Research[20] shows that these sorts of allergy symptoms are higher for both those who smoke and even those who don’t smoke but are breathing in the smoke second-hand. In fact, research shows a connection between second-hand smoke and asthma[21] in children.

Tips to Improve Sleep with Allergies

1. Consider a New Mattress & Bedding

ou can wash sheets in hot water to get rid of dust mites and pet dander, but after so many washes, sheets can accumulate detergent buildup and feel hard, and the detergent may even contain harmful chemicals, which can worsen allergies on their own. Mattresses can also play host to dust mites and pet dander, but you can’t wash those in hot water.

This is just one reason you might want to consider replacing your mattress after about seven years. Plus, there are hypoallergenic mattresses and bedding for those who are more prone to allergies.

2. Use an Air Purifier

An air purifier can help remove pet dander, pollen, dust, and any airborne particles with a size of .3 microns.

You should keep in mind, though, that most types of air purifiers are not effective at treating allergies, even if they advertise that they are. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that ionizing purifiers using UV are effective for allergies or that they even work to kill bacteria. These “ionic electrostatic” room cleaners can actually make allergies worse, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology[22], and not changing the filter regularly (on any type of purifier) can also make allergies worse.

The only type of air purifier that has been shown to be effective[23] at helping allergies is one with a HEPA filter.

3. Keep Pets Out of Your Bed

We’d never recommend getting rid of your beloved pet because of allergies, but one thing you can do is keep them from getting in your bed. At least this way, pet dander won’t be in the space where you sleep.

For dogs and cats that are used to sleeping in the bed, it will probably take some training to get them to stop. You can start out by creating an equally cozy space for them to sleep, outside of the bedroom at first, so they don’t jump up onto the bed. You may have to deal with some barking or meowing outside of your door during this transition period, and eventually, you may be able to move their dog bed back into the bedroom, just not on the bed, depending on how trainable your pet is.

If you feel guilty about keeping them out of the bedroom, you could also try having them sleep in a crate and make it nice and cozy for them. This way, they can at least be in the same room with you but not directly on your bed.

Read our full guide on sleeping with pets for more helpful details.

4. Keep Your Windows Closed

Keeping the windows open can feel wonderful on those cool spring nights, but it can also let in a consistent flow of pollen and mold. If you want to minimize your exposure to these allergens, we’d recommend keeping your windows closed during the day and night.

5. Shower Before Bed

Showering before bed will help remove any outdoor allergens from your body before you climb into bed. It’s also a good reason to get into some fresh pajamas rather than any clothing you were wearing outdoors before you go to sleep.

6. Double Down on Your Cleaning Routine

If you’re like most people, you probably do a light clean of the house every week or two; perhaps a deep clean once every month or so. If you have allergies, though, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology[24] recommends that you clean more thoroughly. Specifically, they recommend mopping the floors and wiping down surfaces for dust with detergent and water once a week.

You can also encase pillows and cushions in dust-mite-proof covers, wash sheets, pillowcases, and blankets in hot water once per week, and vacuum once per week as well. If that’s not enough on your to-do list, the AAAAI also suggests washing your pet twice a month.

7. Consider Allergy Medication

Allergy medications are a helpful option to continue living a normal life without being ruled by allergy symptoms. Some common types of allergy medications[25] include antihistamines, eye drops, nasal sprays, decongestants, corticosteroids, inhalers, skin creams, and allergy shots.

Some antihistamines (like Benadryl) can cause drowsiness, so be sure you’re taking it at night only. Other allergy medications (like Claritin-D) can cause insomnia[25]. That’s why it’s important to research the medication and talk to your doctor before taking it.

8. Talk to Your Doctor

If allergies are impacting your sleep and interfering with your life, the best starting point is to talk to your doctor. They may recommend over-the-counter allergy medications, allergy tests, natural remedies, or lifestyle changes, but they should be able to guide you more specifically, knowing your individual circumstances. After all, allergy remedies are not one size fits all.

Our Final Thoughts

Living with allergies can be difficult – especially if you happen to be allergic to a furry member of your family or the very city in which you live. Luckily, there are a variety of ways to improve the symptoms of allergies and mitigate exposure to the allergens themselves, so you don’t have to totally upend your life or move to the desert.

We recommend starting with the basics: keep your windows closed at night, keep the house clean, make sure you’re replacing your mattress about every five to seven years, and of course, talk to your doctor if allergies are impacting your quality of life.

Natalie G.

Natalie G.

Writer

About Author

Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.

Combination Sleeper

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