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Can You Sleep off a Cold?

  • Medical Author:
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

Ask a Doctor

I have a huge presentation due for work at the end of the week, but I have a terrible cold. I’m trying to figure out the best home remedies and medications for a cold, but I know rest is best. Should I take a break from preparing my project to try to sleep it off, or will that not work and I should just use that time to keep working. Can you sleep off a cold?

Doctor’s Response

Cold symptoms will go away on their own over time and rest is one of the best ways to help your body heal, so in a sense, you can sleep off a cold. Sleep helps boost the immune system and can help you recover from a cold more quickly.

But sometimes, it’s tough to sleep when you have a cold. Cold symptoms such as runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, and cough can keep you up at night, preventing a restful sleep. Some ways to help yourself get a good night’s sleep when you have a cold include:

  • Drink tea. Hot beverages or soups can help open nasal passages and loosen congestion.
  • Add moisture. Taking a hot, steamy shower can open dry nasal passages and loosen mucus as well as helping you relax before bed. A humidifier can also add moisture to the air to relieve dry sinuses. Make sure to keep the humidifier clean so it doesn’t become a breeding ground for bacteria or mold.
  • Elevate your head. When you lay down, mucus can collect in the back of the throat, aggravating a cough or sore throat. Use a few pillows to prop your head up.
  • Try over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicines such as cough suppressants, expectorants, decongestants, antihistamines, and pain relievers to help reduce symptoms that keep you up at night.

To date, no specific cure has been found for the group of viruses that cause the common cold. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses, and are of no use in treating a cold. It seems unlikely a single antiviral medication will be discovered in the near future that can target the over 200 different cold viruses. That is true in part because the viruses genetically change (mutate) each season just enough to prevent the development of a specific treatment for that virus.

The good news is that people can take several steps to alleviate the symptoms once they have contracted a virus:

  • Congestion: Drink plenty of fluids to help break up congestion and help keep mucus from becoming too thick. Drinking water will prevent dehydration and keep the throat moist. Some clinicians recommend people with colds drink at least eight to 10 (8-ounce) cups of water daily.
    • Fluids might include water, sports drinks, herbal teas, fruit drinks, ginger ale, and soups.
    • Cola, coffee, and other drinks with caffeine often work to increase urine output when the goal is to increase fluids in the body system; consequently, such fluids may be counterproductive.
    • Inhaled steam (from a safe distance so scalding of skin or mucus membranes is avoided) may ease congestion and drippy nose. Suggestions on how to do this safely:
      • Put a pot or teakettle on a trivet on a table and drape a towel over the head and around the steam.
      • A humidifier can increase humidity in a room and is useful to use during the winter when heating dries out the air and a person's mucus membranes.
      • Moisture from a hot shower with the door closed, a saline nasal spray, or sitting close to a room humidifier may be as useful as any of the above
  • Fever and pain: Medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve) or other anti-inflammatory medications often help decrease fever, reduce sore throat pain, and relieve body aches.
    • High fever usually is not associated with the common cold and may be indicative of "the flu" -- a more severe illness caused by an influenza virus. Report to your doctor any temperature greater than 102 F/38.8 C.
    • Never give a child aspirin or medications containing aspirin. In children younger than 12 years, aspirin has been associated with Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal liver disorder.
  • Cough: The cough is a reflex that occurs when the airway passages are irritated. Cough preparations are usually divided into two main categories:
    • Suppressants: These act by blocking your cough reflex. As a general rule, use a suppressant for a dry, hacking cough. The agent usually found in over-the-counter cough suppressants is dextromethorphan (Benylin, Pertussin CS or DM, Robitussin Maximum Strength, Vicks 44 Cough Relief).
    • Expectorants: A cough associated with excessive mucus production, or phlegm, warrants use of an expectorant. Guaifenesin (Mucinex, Organidin) is the most common active ingredient in over-the-counter expectorants (such as Anti-Tuss, Fenesin, Robitussin, Sinumist-SR, Mucinex). It is also used for nasal decongestion (see below).
  • Sore throat
    • Lozenges and topical sprays can provide relief from sore throat pain. In particular, lozenges containing zinc may relieve many cold symptoms better than other types of throat lozenges. The benefits of zinc are not proven, however, and it can cause stomach upset. It also has been linked to loss of the sense of smell. Lozenges are not recommended for young children as they can be a choking hazard.
    • A warm saltwater gargle can relieve a scratchy throat.
  • Nasal congestion and itching: Nasal decongestants help relieve clogged nasal and sinus passages caused by excessive and thickened mucus secretion. There are several general types of decongestants and other medications available; some medications may combine some of these drugs:
    • Oral medications come in either pill or liquid form and act by shrinking engorged blood vessels in the nasal and sinus passages. They work well because the medication is distributed in the bloodstream. Oral decongestants often are associated with stimulant side effects such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and insomnia. A commonly used over-the-counter oral decongestant is pseudoephedrine (Actifed, Sudafed, Triaminic), but people with certain health conditions such as Parkinson's disease, high blood pressure, or prostate disease should avoid its use.
    • Nasal spray decongestants act similarly to oral decongestants but have the advantage of acting only in the area applied, usually without the stimulant side effects. The most common active ingredient in nasal sprays is oxymetazoline (Afrin, Dristan nasal spray, Neo-Synephrine, Vicks Sinex).
    • A side effect of excessive use of nasal decongestants is dependency (rhinitis medicamentosa). Additionally, a "rebound" effect may occur in which nasal symptoms recur after a person abruptly stops the medication. Use nasal decongestants no longer than the package instructions indicate -- usually three days.
    • An expectorant, guaifenesin, is used to thin out bronchial secretions, including mucus. This allows the patient to more easily clear their airways that may become blocked with secretions and mucus thus making blowing the nose more effective in clearing secretions. It also functions as a cough suppressant.
    • Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can help relieve itching.

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Reviewed on 5/9/2019
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