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When the flu strikes, sleep is your best friend

January 17, 2018 14 Comments

Lee County has the flu

[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]

And it's a tough bug doing widespread damage to upper respiratory systems all around us. 

The map to the right shows that, as of January 12, 2018, Lee County joins the majority of the state of Alabama in reporting SIGNIFICANT lab-confirmed cases of three strains: Influenza A(H3), Influenza A (2009 H1N1) and Influenza B/Yamagata (source: Alabama Public Health labs report).

The outbreak coincides at a time when the weather is especially cold, which only makes matters worse.

If you haven't yet been vaccinated, it's still a good time to do so, and not too late, especially if you want to defend against Influenza B (Yamagata). The current quadrivalent vaccine, which protects against four strains, is the only one available to fight this particular strain.

Also: Here's advice from Alabama Public Health regarding who should and shouldn't receive the vaccine.

What this year's flu looks like

As outbreak reports confirm, this year's influenza is extremely contagious. The virus causes respiratory illness affecting the nose, throat, and lungs.

Symptoms can be mild and last only a few days or they can last weeks and be severe enough to land you in the hospital.

For those most vulnerable among our neighbors--young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems--flu can last much longer and can even result in death.

The infographic below,  produced by the American Public Health Association, should help you decide if you need to be seen for your symptoms. 

Meanwhile, the usual and customary advice for self-care remains the best advice: drink plenty of fluids, stay home, and get plenty of sleep.

How sleep helps the flu

Sleep is a critical body process, as it helps to:

  • bolster the immune system
  • support healing through the release of human growth hormone and other healing agents
  • fight infection
  • regulate circadian rhythms, which keep all of our systems in balance

Even when you're feeling perfectly fine, poor sleep leads to daytime fatigue, poor dietary choices, and a weakened immune system. Therefore, if you've come down with the flu, losing sleep will only exacerbate these conditions. Fatigue happens as a result of the flu because your body needs all the energy it can muster to fight the war on viruses. 

It's probably worth noting that sleeping adequately while you are healthy also matters. Research shows that even those people who get the flu vaccine, but who are generally sleep deprived, get less protection from the shot than those who get their eight hours every night of the week. 

How to achieve good sleep when you have the flu

Follow these tips to maximize your sleep regimen during a case of the flu.


Pillows and a couch back or recliner chair help use gravity to relieve you of the sinus pressure and congestion that comes from a respiratory infection. When you sleep without props, your sinuses generate post-nasal drip, leaving buildup in your throat which can cause sore throat, coughing, even secondary infections like laryngitis. 


Your old-school Vick's vaporizer or personal humidifier can be a real lifesaver here. Moisture helps keep the mucous membranes in the airways moist, especially during cold, dry periods during the winter. Make sure you clean any device regularly to prevent the buildup of unhealthy mold or bacteria.

If you don't have these appliances, irrigate with saline nasal spray or even use one of those vapor "sticks" you can keep in your pocket.


Chicken soup is your friend! Consuming hot soups and beverages helps to loosen mucus and make the airways easier to clear. Not only is the liquid itself nurturing, but the steam can open up your sinus passages.

Honey in your tea acts as a demulcent, meaning it soothes the throat and makes your coughs productive. Coughing is a good way for the body to remove excessive mucus in order to breathe better.

Broths, teas, warm and spicy drinks such as chai or spiced cider, or concoctions the include fresh ginger, lemon, or sweet spices (cloves, cinnamon, or cardamom) have an aromatic quality similar to the menthols in your vaporizer which also provide relief. 

Try to avoid sugary juices or milk products as these may be counterproductive. Coffee and alcohol aren't good options, as they are diuretic and can react poorly to any medications you might take.


Right before bed, a steamy bathroom and aromatic bath salts or menthol-scented bombs (for the shower or the bathtub) can make for good relaxation. Don't draw your water too hot; the body sleeps better if it's not overheated.


Just because you have the flu doesn't mean you have to suffer. We all have experiences using certain over-the-counter remedies (or homespun ones, too). You generally know what works for you. Maybe it's a multisymptom relief medication, or something fizzy, or a homeopathic zinc tablet or nasal spray.

None of these will "cure" your flu, but they will help you sleep better. More sleep means your body has more opportunities to fight back and reduce the lifespan of the virus.

If you're not sure what to take, a good pharmacist will show you a variety of options based on your symptoms, or call your doctor's clinic and ask for suggestions from the nurse on staff.


Jeff Jerkins, owner and pharmacist of Bubbas Medicine Shop, recently told the Opelika Observer“We’ve had more flu cases in the past couple of weeks than we’ve had all year... If you have the flu, certainly don’t get out in the community, stay home, isolate yourself, rest in the bed.”

Jerkins is right: This is not the time to "power through" by going to work or doing chores. Sleep it off and you'll get better sooner. Separating yourself from your "herd" at home helps you in two ways:

  • you reduce the risk of spreading your virus to your loved ones
  • you can cough, sneeze, toss and turn, blow your nose without worrying you are waking up your bed partner at night.

Set up your quarantine "station" in a separate bed, couch, chair or room away from the rest of your household, with a television nearby, a laptop or tablet for watching movies, or a stack of good books. Use a garbage can to catch your used tissues, and keep a pitcher of water, medications, teapot, bleach disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, and comfort objects nearby. 


It can be hard to stay home when life is full. Many people are the heads of households and may be the only caregiver. Staying home doesn't seem like a viable option.

Alabama Public Health suggests that during flu season, you should consider stockpiling supplies in advance, while you are healthy, so you can "heal in place" if the flu comes visiting.

Supplies include hand soap and sanitizer, bleach wipes for quick surface disinfection, electrolyte drinks, over-the-counter medication, tissues and paper towels, face masks, nonperishable "sick day" foods, and even baby food, diapers, and dog food.

If you still have a need for items, enlist a neighbor, family member, or friend to help out so you can get back to sleeping... and healing.

For CPAP users

If you use PAP therapy for sleep apnea, you may feel intimidated by the idea of putting on a mask at night to sleep when you have the flu. 

However, you will resolve your respiratory infections far more quickly if you use your PAP therapy. Why? 

It provides warm, moist air, which relieves the upper airway passages, making it easier to cough or sneeze, two important actions if you want to be rid of excess mucus and congestion. 

Also, even if you struggle to fall asleep with PAP when you're sick, you eventually will fall asleep, and you will have better sleep than if you'd skipped it, simply because you won't be having apneas. Untreated sleep apnea also intrudes upon the immune system and can make it even harder to fight the flu. 

If your chief problem is congestion, try a nasal spray or menthol stick before putting on your mask to help clear passages at bedtime, and sleep in a propped up position whenever possible. Some people have a different mask they use when they are sick with a respiratory virus: if a nasal pillow is less comfortable while you have the flu, you might try having a nasal mask on hand instead for added comfort. 

While using your PAP may be more uncomfortable than usual when you have the flu, you are far better served by using this therapy than skipping it. 

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