If you’ve had trouble getting a good night’s sleep over the past two years, you are far from alone. The pandemic has affected us all in one way or another — whether because of isolation-related stress, the fear of getting sick, or managing a COVID-19 illness and its aftermath.
Across the board, this pandemic has been a lot, and it’s no wonder our sleep has suffered accordingly. Sleep problems have become so prevalent during the pandemic that experts have come up with a blanket word for them: Covidsomnia.
A survey from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that more than half of Americans (56%) suffered from COVID-related sleep disturbances during the pandemic. While the most prominent symptom was trouble falling asleep, complaints also included sleeping fewer hours, sleeping less soundly, and having bad dreams.
Whether you call it “Coronasomnia” or “Covidsomnia,” here’s what to know about what COVID-19-related insomnia looks like, what causes it, and, most importantly, what you can do to get a better night’s sleep, whether worrying about the pandemic or suffering from the virus or its lingering symptoms.
What is COVID insomnia?
Covid insomnia — or Covidsomnia — refers to the inability to sleep due to COVID-19. Because of the nature of the virus, not to mention the stress and anxiety surrounding the global pandemic, the term broadly encompasses the many sleep issues that have seen a noticeable uptick during the pandemic, says neurologist, sleep specialist, and Sleep.com Sleep Advisor Dr. Chris Winter. “Covidsomnia would be defined as individuals having difficulty sleeping, or dissatisfaction in their sleep, either because of, or related to our current pandemic, or if they have it, their illness,” Winter says.
Insomnia — defined by the National Library of Medicine as having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep — was common before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Winter says he’s definitely seen an uptick over the last two years. In his experience, the COVID-related sleeplessness people are experiencing is caused by a variety of factors, including the many ways our lives have been dramatically altered.
“It’s often a much more subtle sort of disassembly of somebody’s life that happens with COVID, a little bit more stress and uncertainty, a little stranger schedule, your kids are now home with you sometimes... it’s all of those things,” Winter says. Indeed, numerous studies have found links between COVID-19 sleep issues and the anxiety of pandemic living, particularly as it relates to social isolation. As Americans have reported increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of loneliness, the sleeplessness of Covidsomnia has proliferated, with parents of young children reporting higher levels of burn-out and sleeplessness.
Covidsomnia is not just psychological; it can also be a result of the virus itself. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that that the prevalence of sleep problems during the pandemic was high, affecting approximately 40% of people. But people infected with COVID-19 were more likely to experience sleep disturbances than those who were not. In some cases, Covidsomnia might also extend to vaccines: Some people may notice that they can’t sleep after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, a sleep and chronic fatigue expert, says this is usually because pain or discomfort from the shot is keeping them up at night.
Is insomnia a symptom of COVID-19?
You may be wondering if your insomnia could be a sign that you’ve contracted COVID-19.
Insomnia is not an official symptom of COVID-19. Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nor the World Health Organization (WHO) list insomnia or sleep disturbances as a symptom or side effect of COVID-19.
Still, many of the symptoms of COVID-19 — such as coughing, shortness of breath, fever, and chills — can make sleeping during an active infection very difficult, and COVID-19 symptoms can also include night sweats. Winter says his patients have reported trouble getting shut-eye because of symptoms like chills, or a nagging cough that makes sleeping while battling the coronavirus nearly impossible at times.
But even after these symptoms have resolved, many people find their sleep schedules turned upside down, Winter says. Prolonged feelings of fatigue can mean more daytime napping, which can make for challenges sleeping through the night.
Other causes of COVID-19-related sleep issues
While there is not currently a proven direct scientific link between COVID-19 and insomnia, Covidsomnia is certainly “a thing” and is likely caused by the accumulation of stressors that we’ve been experiencing during the past two years, whether we’ve actually been infected or not.
All of us have had varying degrees of schedule changes and isolation periods during the pandemic, but those of us who found ourselves suddenly working from home, with our normal routines totally upended for months on end, likely noticed changes in sleep patterns.
Researchers have surmised that Covidsomnia and pandemic-related sleeplessness could be due to changes in physical activity and diet, and their possible increased reliance on electronics before bed. Without the regular routines and external zeitgebers to regulate circadian rhythm, it has become more difficult for many of us to maintain sleep hygiene.
Major Allison Brager, Ph.D., a neuroscientist with the U.S. Army who oversaw clinical testing and field support as part of the Army’s COVID-19 response at the Javits Center in New York City, confirms that humans crave routines for a reason, and when these routines are interrupted, such as during lockdowns, it can wreak havoc on sleep.
Tech use and doomscrolling
Though you may already know this, it’s worth reiterating: Spending hours on a screen, especially in the evening, is not great for getting a full night’s sleep. “Technology at night prevents optimal release of the melatonin hormone that helps us fall and stay asleep,” Brager says.
It’s not just the screen time itself, but the content of what we are glued to, and the angst it may be causing us. Let’s face it: Doomscrolling became the norm for many of us during the height of the pandemic, and it’s not a great pastime to engage in, especially before bed.
One study found that consumption of digital media increased by about 35% during the pandemic, and the researchers noted that many of us were scrolling through frightening stories about COVID-19 on a routine basis. The researchers concluded that doomscrolling can lead to heightened feelings of stress and anxiety, which in turn can affect our ability to fall asleep and to sleep soundly.
Health impacts of Covidsomnia
Insomnia doesn’t just make you tired and unable to function optimally, it can also have significant physical, mental, and emotional impacts. Studies have found that over time, insomnia can lead to health problems like diabetes, increased blood pressure, cognitive impairment, and even an increased risk of early death.
Insomnia is linked with emotional and mental stress, as well as psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression. It’s kind of a never-ending cycle, because stress and anxiety can cause insomnia in the first place, and then insomnia and lack of sleep can exacerbate it.
“Worry in general can interfere with sleep and worsened sleep can increase pain, fatigue, and impact overall mental health,” Teitelbaum says.
Winter agrees that putting extra pressure on yourself to fall asleep is one of the worst things you can do when it comes to insomnia. Telling yourself to “just lie down and sleep!” usually backfires, but adjusting your end-goals even just a little can work wonders.
“You may not be able to sleep particularly well but if you can just close your eyes and rest and relax a little bit, that would be helpful too,” Winter suggests. “A lot of times when people stop trying to sleep, they do a lot better.”
Sleep problems after long COVID
Insomnia may also be a symptom of what’s known as long COVID. Long COVID is when symptoms or after-effects of COVID-19 persist for weeks, months, or even indefinitely after an active infection. According to a study in Lancet Psychiatry, insomnia was one of 14 neurological and psychiatric symptoms that those with long COVID experienced six months after having COVID-19. About 5.4% of people with long COVID had insomnia, and this was more likely after a severe bout of COVID-19 or a COVID-19 hospitalization.
The incidences of insomnia after COVID-19 might seem contradictory to some, given that chronic fatigue is one of the main symptoms of long COVID-19. But living with high levels of fatigue on an ongoing basis doesn’t mean you will be able to fall asleep easily at night.
“People are saying, ‘Oh I feel like I’m on the opposite side of that spectrum; I’m tired all the time,’” Winter says. “But you can be tired all the time and still struggle to fall asleep when you go to bed at night.”
How to sleep if you have COVID-19
Getting adequate sleep when you have COVID-19 can be challenging, especially if symptoms worsen at night. But it’s important to try your best to get those Zzz’s, even when you are plagued by symptoms like coughing, congestion, fever, and even night sweats or chills.
At the same time, you might be wondering if it’s normal to sleep a lot with COVID-19. Infections naturally cause us to be sleepier than usual, Brager says, and you shouldn’t fight the urge to sleep when it comes. “The more sleep, the better,” she advises.
Not only is sleep important in terms of keeping your energy up and recovering, but studies have found associations between lack of sleep and immune dysfunction — all the more reason to make sure you get enough sleep during times of illness.
Our experts shared some tips for how to deal with the symptoms of COVID-19 that tend to keep us up at night.
How to sleep when experiencing fever and chills
“Symptoms of infection are often worse at night as the immune system gears up,” says Teitelbaum. Fever and chills are some of the immune system reactions that tend to rise in the evening and at night, so you should ask your doctor what OTC medications you can take to help manage your symptoms. The CDC says that acetaminophen or ibuprofen are medications that can reduce fever symptoms during COVID-19.
How to sleep when experiencing coughing and congestion
A pesky cough and a stuffy nose can seem to exacerbate Covidsomnia. Since histamine levels can also follow circadian rhythm, stuffiness can feel worst before bed. “Sitting upright and a really hot steamy shower sometimes can really help open people up,” Winter advises. Teitelbaum recommends drinking a hot tea, like chamomile, before bedtime, as that can loosen your mucus, as well as decrease your coughing.
Headaches are a common symptom of COVID-19. Additionally, Winter says that sometimes all the coughing you are doing can make your headache worse. “The cough can be so bad that some people get headaches,” he notes. “So they cough, it hurts their head, and it becomes a real cycle.”
Winter recommends that you take whatever headache and cough medicine your doctor recommends during this time, and to make sure to advocate for your needs if one particular medication isn’t working properly.
Is there a best sleeping position for COVID-19?
You might be wondering if there’s a best position to sleep in when you have the coronavirus. “Whichever position is most comfortable is best,” Teitelbaum says. “Position is really only an issue in people who are on the verge of needing to be in the hospital.”
Still, there are some sleep positions that are better than others if you are having bothersome COVID-19 symptoms. “A lot of times, an upright position can be really helpful,” Winter suggests. If you have an adjustable bed, you can move it to a more upright position, or you can prop yourself up on a few pillows.
What to do if insomnia persists past COVID-19
Though sleep may come more easily once primary symptoms — including fevers, coughs, or chills — abate, insomnia could persist after you’re no longer positive with COVID-19. Lingering Covidsomnia — and of course, the stress felt as a result of the ongoing pandemic is an issue many of us continue to grapple with.
Thankfully, there are some simple steps we can take to decrease our Covidsomnia.
Practice smart sleep hygiene
“Sleep hygiene” is a buzzword you hear a lot these days, but all it means is adopting healthy habits that allow for a good night’s rest, which is something that all of us could use a refresher on from time to time.
Here are some tips:
- Make sure to keep a predictable daily routine, with plenty of sunshine and exercise.
- When possible, maintain a consistent sleep schedule with similar sleep and wake-up times.
- Avoid blue light before bedtime, which can mean cutting out screen time altogether or getting a blue-light-blocking filter for your devices.
- Try to keep separate spaces for working and sleep — i.e., if possible, don’t have your bedroom also be your office.
- Keep nighttime snacking to a minimum, and when you do it, keep it healthy and light.
- Cut back on caffeine and alcohol consumption, especially close to bedtime.
- Ask your healthcare provider about over-the-counter sleep aids like melatonin and other natural sleep aids.
- Adopt sleep-inducing habits like meditation, journaling, and guided breathing.
Where to go from here
The most important thing to keep in mind about Covidsomnia and insomnia in general, is that it is treatable. If you continue to experience insomnia after COVID-19, or if your general pandemic insomnia is persistent, you should seek professional help, Winter says.
Who should you see? Be sure that the medical professional you see is board-certified in sleep or credentialed in sleep behavioral medicine, whether you’re looking for psychiatrists, neurologists, nurse practitioners, or internists.
Either way, Winter hopes that those who suffer from Covidsomnia can take the right steps toward achieving better rest. “Insomnia is something that can be fixed,” says Winter. “It just takes a little bit of work.”