Every muscle in my back, hips and legs ached. I was shaking and shivering uncontrollably, despite the three blankets I was buried under. My head throbbed, my throat was scratchy and I felt downright miserable — my breakthrough COVID-19 infection was no joke.
But the worst part of all? Despite how fatigued I felt, sleep seemed to be just out of reach.
Any time you’re sick, sleeping can be more difficult. A COVID infection is no different, said Dr. Heather Moday, an immunologist and author of “The Immunotype Breakthrough.”
“Whether it’s a breakthrough COVID infection or an infection of an unvaccinated person, either can cause disruptions of sleep,” she explained. “The issue is the severity of symptoms. People with breakthrough infections tend to have milder symptoms of aches, fever, cough and fatigue compared to the unvaccinated. But these symptoms may still be there to some degree. All of these symptoms may make it more difficult to get comfortable and stay asleep.”
How can you cope? If counting sheep isn’t cutting it, try these tips to get better sleep when you’re COVID-19 positive.
Get in a hot shower
Before you go to bed, take a hot shower, said Dr. Lucy McBride, an internist based in Washington, D.C. Get the water warm enough to create steam. This is a great way to “loosen up congestion,” she explained.
Use medication to mitigate your symptoms
McBride also suggested managing symptoms with over-the-counter cough medications and fever reducers (like ibuprofen or acetaminophen), as long as they don’t interfere with any other medications you’re taking.
Beware of using decongestants in the evening, though, “as these contain ingredients that have stimulant properties and may keep you awake at night,” said Dr. Sonya Merrill, a sleep medicine specialist on the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas medical staff.
Taking a small dose of melatonin at bedtime might be helpful as well, Moday said, as it “not only helps ramp up your immune system overnight, but also helps improve circadian rhythm by opposing the stress hormone cortisol and telling your body it’s time for sleep.” Just be sure to chat with your doctor before starting any new medication.
Prop up your head and neck
Merrill recommended sleeping with your head and neck elevated, to “improve breathing and reduce mucus pooling in the back of your throat.”
You can do this by lying on a few pillows or adding a proper neck pillow to your sleep arsenal.
Drink lots of water, tea or electrolyte drinks
Merrill suggested drinking water to help thin mucus, a byproduct of the infection that can lead to rest-reducing issues like congestion and nasal drip.
If your symptoms include vomiting or nausea, it’s especially important to stay hydrated. “You can drink coconut water or add some electrolyte tabs, such as Nuun brand, into very diluted fruit juice,” Moday said. “Commercial electrolyte drinks like Pedialyte are fine as well, but they do contain more sugar. Ginger can help tremendously with nausea, as can fennel.”
Moday also suggested drinking honey and lemon tea, or tea with demulcent herbs (like slippery elm and licorice root).
Use a humidifier and keep your room at a decent temperature
Make sure your room is an ideal place to rest. Merrill recommended using a humidifier set between 40% and 50% humidity “to improve nasal breathing.”
Also, an optimal bedroom temperature for sleeping is “between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, as it is all the more important to keep the bedroom cool when you have a fever,” Merrill said.
Try your hardest not to sleep or stay in bed all day
While you may be tempted to sleep the day away with COVID, chances are you’ll regret it come nighttime.
“It’s OK to spend a little more time than usual in bed at night, as you may need more sleep while battling a virus,” Merrill said. “However, avoid spending excessive time in bed during the day and taking long naps. These behaviors often make it harder for you to sleep at night.”
Instead, Merrill suggested finding a comfortable place to rest during the day, such as a recliner or couch outside your bedroom, and setting a timer to ensure you don’t nap longer than 30 minutes.
Isolate when possible to help you sleep better and protect others
While sharing a bed with someone may be your norm, it’s probably not a good idea while you’re fighting a COVID infection. Not only may having a bed partner keep you awake, but if you test positive for COVID-19, you should isolate from others for at least five days until you are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication and your symptoms are improving.
“Generally, quarantining from your partner is still recommended with breakthrough cases of COVID-19 even if they are vaccinated and especially if they have a negative test,” Moday said. “Given the highly transmissible nature of the omicron variant, they have a very high change of getting infected if you don’t.”
McBride acknowledged that isolating from very young children may not be possible. “Personally, I would have a very hard time isolating from my very young child if he/she had COVID,” she said. “We have to balance the potential harm of getting a breakthrough infection from our child — which for most vaccinated people is like a cold or a flu — against the harms of leaving a sick child alone.”
Call your doctor if you still can’t sleep
If vomiting keeps you up all night, your cough is accelerating, or you’re having difficulty breathing, McBride said it’s time to call your physician.
“Even breakthrough COVID infections can sometimes cause pneumonia,” she said, “so it’s important to always talk with your own doctor.”