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Allergies keeping you awake?

The symptoms of allergies, including sneezing, a runny nose and postnasal drip; watery, itchy eyes, ears, nose and throat can stop a person from getting a good night's sleep.

As well as the symptoms of allergies themselves, some medication for allergies can affect sleep.

Nasal congestionaffects sleep in a variety of ways:

  • It can be more difficult to sleep while breathing through your mouth. As your body tries repeatedly to breath nasally it disturbs your sleep over and over again.
  • The air that is normally warmed and moistened when passing through the nose is now re-routed through your mouth, drying out and irritating lips, mouth and throat.
  • Pressure or pain can prevent you from falling asleep and staying asleep.
  • There is an increased tendency to snore, which disturbs your sleep, not to mention your bed partner’s.
  • Congestion can worsen the symptoms of those suffering from sleep apnoea, a serious sleep disorder in which a person periodically stops breathing while sleeping.

Postnasal drip: Mucus and other secretions drip down the back of the throat, irritating it. This often causes clearing of the throat and coughing as the secretions drip onto the vocal cords or even into the windpipe. These symptoms disturb sleep and may awaken you at night.

Nocturnal wheeze: In certain people, inhaling allergens may induce sleep-disturbing wheezing. This is caused by the constriction of the bronchioles, tubes that carry air to your lungs. Constriction reduces airflow and wheezing occurs as air moves through these narrowed tubes. Similarly, allergens can increase the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.

Non-specific symptoms: Allergens may also cause non-specific symptoms that seem unrelated to allergies. Recurrent headaches, for example, may be caused by allergies.

What to do?

The first thing to do is to avoid the allergens that cause the allergy. Though it may not be readily apparent what is causing your allergy, there are a few things you can easily do on your own that may help reduce common allergens, such as house dust mites, animal dander and down.

  • Consider getting hypoallergenic pillows and bedding. Pillow and mattress covers may help.
  • If you have pets in your bedroom, consider putting them somewhere else and making the bedroom a ‘no go’ zone for your furry friends.
  • Vacuum carpets and furniture regularly. Newer vacuums have much-improved filtration and design.
  • If you use a humidifier, change the water regularly so it does not breed allergens.
  • If food allergies are suspected, try eliminating certain foods or food types and see if symptoms are relieved. This is best done under the supervision of a dietitian.

If avoidance or controlling the exposure to allergens does not work, some over-the-counter and prescription treatments include:

  • Saline nasal flushes. This is a more ‘natural’, drug-free way to relieve congestion.
  • Nasal decongestant sprays. When used as directed for a limited time, these sprays work quite well and can really clear up congestion. However, it is important to follow the directions carefully, use the minimal amount needed to relieve congestion, and not use too much or too often. Overuse can lead to precisely the same symptoms that you are trying to relieve, such as sneezing and congestion. Using these sprays for more than a few days can cause a rebound congestion called rhinitis medicamentosa.
  • Nasal decongestant tablets or liquids. These also work well and can provide long-lasting relief. But, as with any medication, they may have some side effects. In this case, they could keep you awake at night, especially those containing pseudoephedrine, so they are best used during the day.
  • Antihistamines. They will dry up your runny nose and postnasal drip. Many over-the-counter antihistamines can cause you to feel a bit ‘fuzzy’. They may also affect the quality of your sleep, keeping you from getting into the deeper, more restorative stages.
  • Steroid or other similar-acting nasal sprays. These don’t treat the symptoms, as do decongestants and antihistamines, but instead decrease the immune response that causes the allergic reaction. They do not work instantly, like other types of treatments, but do provide effective prevention when used regularly over time.

If you remain miserably allergic and medications do not work well or cause unacceptable side effects, seek medical advice. The results may surprise you and provide some new treatment options that could allow you the sound sleep you need to be at your best.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on July 29, 2016

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