If you’re like most people, your summer bucket list includes soaking up the sunny weather—taking long strolls outside, working in the garden, swimming at the beach or pool, maybe attending a BBQ or two. But for one in three U.S. adults, seasonal allergies mean that summer involves less enjoyable activities, too, like sneezing, wheezing, and eye-rubbing.

These symptoms can ruin more than a hike or a picnic—nearly 40 percent of individuals with summer allergies report their sleep suffers as a result.

Summer allergies

Summer allergies are typically triggered by grass pollen, levels of which peak around June, and by ragweed, a pollen-producing plant that wreaks most of its havoc in late July and August.

Pollens, grasses, and molds irritate the tissues lining the inside of the nose, setting off a domino effect that includes inflammation, swelling, and mucus production. The result: nasal congestion, a hallmark symptom afflicting about 90 percent of individuals with allergies. There are several other common allergy symptoms:

  • runny nose
  • postnasal drip
  • sneezing
  • itchy nose, eyes, and mouth
  • coughing.

Collectively, these symptoms are known as allergic rhinitis.

The sleep connection

Managing a perpetually stuffy or runny nose during the day is one thing; dealing with nasal congestion at night is a whole other ballgame. People with allergies are more than twice as likely to develop insomnia as allergy-free folks. Here’s why.

Your body is designed to breathe through the nose during sleep. Besides sending warmer, humid air to the lungs, nasal breathing naturally filters out allergens. The mucus and microscopic hairs in the nose (called cilia) trap pollen and other substances, capturing them before they can enter your airways, causing more inflammation.

But when an allergy sufferer hits the sack while congested, nasal breathing becomes all but impossible, and one of two things usually happens. In some people, their body, once asleep, continues to attempt to breathe through the nose. But because the nasal pathways are so swollen and narrowed (a phenomenon that only intensifies once you lie down, thanks to gravity), the air creates noisy vibrations as it moves through, a phenomenon you may know as snoring. Snoring is a surefire sleep-wrecker not just for the person with the allergies—it breeds restless, poor-quality slumber—but for bed partners, too.

Mouth breathing and apnea

Others with nasal congestion end up defaulting to mouth breathing. In addition to dry mouth, this position causes the tongue to partially block the upper airways, potentially causing pauses in breathing called apneas. And if you happen to already have mild obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition characterized by breathing that repeatedly stops and restarts dozens of times a night, the combination of nasal congestion and mouth breathing can worsen it to the point where it requires significant treatment.

Even if you don’t have allergy-­fueled nasal congestion, symptoms like itchy eyes or postnasal drip can interfere with falling and staying asleep. All that poor sleep fosters daytime fatigue and low energy levels. Some evidence suggests subpar sleep can even heighten sensitivity to specific allergens. It’s a vicious, congested cycle.

Symptoms are worse at night

Interestingly, allergy symptoms tend to worsen overnight thanks to the body’s internal clock, which regulates dozens of bodily processes, including sleep and the release of histamine, a chemical produced by the immune system when it encounters allergens like pollen and grasses. Elevated histamine levels can cause nighttime wakefulness. This makes sense when you consider that antihistamine medications often cause drowsiness.

Decongest for better rest

Fortunately, there is light at the end of the summer-allergy tunnel. When you treat your symptoms, your sleep usually follows suit. For most people, that means tackling nasal congestion.

Try saline nasal irrigation

My favorite decongesting method involves using a saltwater solution to flush away allergens and irritants in the nasal passage. This calms inflammation and curbs mucus production. Purchase a commercially prepared saline nasal wash containing sodium chloride (salt) and follow the package directions for mixing it at home with distilled or boiled and cooled water. Many people use neti pots to pour the saline wash into one nostril, letting it travel through the sinuses and fall out the other nostril. (This is done while standing over a sink.) I prefer bringing a squirt bottle into an evening shower and irrigating that way; I find it feels more comfortable, physically, and no cleanup is required.

Most people quickly become accustomed to the feeling of the saltwater flowing through their nose (and sometimes dripping down the throat). Irrigate daily until your congestion eases, then reduce to three times a week.

Irrigation performed just before using a medicated nasal spray such as Flonase or Nasocort can improve their efficacy.

Allergen-proof your bedroom as much as possible

Pollen and other allergens love to hitch a ride on your clothes, hair, and skin; if you get in bed without changing or showering, you bring all those grass and weed particles with you. Once you get home, change into fresh clothes and take a warm shower or bath an hour or two before bedtime. Not only does this help wash away any sleep-­sabotaging irritants, but your body temperature dips after a warm bath or shower, signaling the release of melatonin to promote sleep.

You may need to adjust your laundry routine in the summer, particularly if you keep your bedroom windows open—allergens will flow in, landing on your bedding. Washing your sheets in hot water every other week may work well, but some feel that weekly washing improves their sleep by further reducing the allergen load. Regardless, keeping windows closed during allergy season is far more effective.

Dogs are mobile allergen attractors, bringing the outside inside via their fur and paws. If you usually sleep with your pet, try kicking it out of bed for a few nights and see if your symptoms improve.

Lastly, I recommend running an air filter in the bedroom. You’ll sleep better because you’re breathing easier.

Ask your doctor about allergy medication

Benadryl tends to be people’s go-to pick for nighttime allergy symptoms, mainly because it knocks you out. (People without allergies often use it as a sleep aid for just this reason.) It contains diphenhydramine, an antihistamine that causes drowsiness while alleviating allergy symptoms. But Benadryl and other OTC antihistamines are meant to be used temporarily.

If congestion, itching, and other symptoms are truly wrecking your sleep, it’s fine to use these meds for five to seven days before bedtime. Beyond that, you risk experiencing adverse effects, including:

  • Lower-quality sleep Benadryl can help you pass out faster and stay asleep longer, but the quality of sleep is usually not restorative.
  • An altered sleep-wake cycle Because histamine is a critical player in your sleep-wake cycle—it helps you wake up in the morning—overusing antihistamines can confuse your body clock, making it much harder to fall asleep at bedtime.
  • Antihistamine hangovers. People who overuse Benadryl often wake up feeling groggy and stay that way for hours.

Try a nasal steroid spray like Flonase instead. The medicine remains localized in your nose, where you need it, as opposed to traveling throughout your system, like Benadryl.

Avoid decongestant nasal sprays containing oxymetazoline, such as Afrin—nasal tissue can become “addicted” to their effects, and when you stop using them, you can experience rebound congestion that’s typically even worse than it was initially.

Emerging evidence suggests that supplemental melatonin may have some promise in improving inflammation and sleep in those with allergies. People tend to take larger quantities of melatonin than needed. As with any medication or supplement, consult your doctor before starting.

Switch up your sleeping position

Sleeping as upright as possible minimizes congestion and postnasal drip. Use several pillows, or try a wedge pillow specifically made to keep your head and neck elevated overnight. If apneas are causing you to repeatedly choke or startle awake, side sleeping may help keep airways open.

(Note: If your bed partner observes your breathing stopping and starting overnight, it’s time to see a doctor.)

Change Your Diet to Reduce Allergies

Eating excessive calories, protein, and saturated fat may worsen allergies by priming the immune system for allergic reactions, researchers reported in the journal Nutrients in 2023. The authors recommend calorie restriction, sufficient dietary fiber, and plant-based diets as an allergy-fighting dietary strategy.

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