Sleep and asthma

Asthma keeping you awake at night? Here’s how to deal with night-time symptoms

After a long day, the last thing you need is for your asthma to flare up in the middle of the night. It is quite common for people with asthma to find coughing, wheezing and breathlessness wakes them up.

But you shouldn’t have to put up with it. Here are the practical steps and medicines you can take to stop asthma getting in the way of a good night’s rest.

What to do when asthma stops you sleeping

  • Firstly, sit up straight and take your blue reliever inhaler, as prescribed. You could try keeping your blue inhaler next to your bed, so you don’t have to search for it in the middle of the night if your asthma symptoms wake you up.
  • Some people find propping themselves up with extra pillows helps as it allows your lungs to open up more fully when you breathe. 
  • If your asthma is made worse when the air in a room is too hot or too cold, try to adjust the temperature to make sure you're comfortable. You could open a window or put on the heating.
  • Some people find a glass of water or a cup of herbal tea, such as peppermint or chamomile, can help ease a dry throat and help you feel less stressed.

How to stop asthma waking you at night in the long-term

“You don’t have to just accept your night-time asthma symptoms as normal, and struggle on feeling exhausted at work or looking after family,” says asthma nurse Sonia Munde. “Science shows that if your asthma is waking you up at night it’s a sign that it isn’t well controlled.

"So, you can stop asthma affecting your sleep, by using your preventer inhaler every day, as prescribed. This will reduce the inflammation in your airways. That keeps your asthma symptoms under control, so you can get some shut-eye."

If the situation doesn’t change within 48 hours, or if you’re already taking your preventer inhaler as prescribed, talk to your GP or asthma nurse to see if they can adjust your medicines.

You might find a big difference if:

Why asthma can wake you up at night

If your asthma isn’t under control, you’re more likely to get symptoms at night. Why? There are three main reasons:

  1. When you lie flat on your back, gravity places extra pressure on your chest and lungs, making it harder to breathe. This position can also trigger a cough, as any mucus in your chest may start to gather in the back of your throat.

  2. Changes in everyone’s hormones at night means that natural anti-inflammatory chemicals in your body are switched off. So this can cause the tissues in your lungs to swell, which narrows the airways, making it harder to breathe. Taking your anti-inflammatory preventer inhaler everyday will build up protection in your lungs so they become less inflamed at night, helping you get a better night's rest.

  3. Some common asthma triggers can be at higher levels in your bedroom. These include dust-mites in your mattress, pillows and bed clothes, and mould if your bedroom is damp. If you like sleeping with your window open, be aware that on high pollen or pollution days, these particles may enter the room and affect you overnight.

Asthma steroid pills and sleep

If your GP has prescribed oral steroids pills (often a medicine called prednisolone) for your asthma, and you find they’re keeping you awake, try taking them earlier in the day.

“By taking your steroid tablets in the morning with breakfast, as prescribed you likely to sleep better at night,” says Sonia.

Asthma and your sleep

Dr. Andy Whittamore explains why you should book an appointment with your GP if your asthma is keeping you awake at night.

Video: Asthma and your sleep

Dr. Andy Whittamore explains why you should book an appointment with your GP if your asthma is keeping you awake at night.
Transcript for Asthma and your sleep

0:04 We hear from a lot of people on our

0:07 helpline and on social media that asthma does

0:10 interrupt their sleep on a

0:11 regular basis. As a health care

0:13 professional I know that unfortunately,

0:14 this means that your asthma is not quite

0:16 as well controlled as it can be. And it's

0:18 worth making appointment with your GP or

0:20 your practice nurse to see what we can

0:21 do to help relieve those symptoms and

0:24 actually improve your quality of sleep.

If your asthma is keeping you awake at night, you’re not alone. In our recent sleep survey, 45% of people told us they have difficulty sleeping because of their asthma at least once a week. And, 47% said they’d had an asthma attack at night, either when they were asleep or while trying to nod off.

Night-time asthma doesn’t just affect the person with asthma. Some people sleep separately from partners who have asthma, because they can’t sleep either when the night-time coughing starts.

We also asked what people do to manage their night-time asthma. Different things work for different people, but here are some of the popular and useful pieces of advice they shared, that our nurses agree might also be helpful:

  • Easing a dry throat with a glass of water
  • Using decongestants, like Olbas Oil and Vicks, to unblock a stuffy nose (but you should test this out during the day first, as it can be a trigger for some people. This is because they act as a decongestant, which might release mucus and cause you to cough.)
  • Regular exercise, yoga and breathing exercises
  • Practising mindfulness and evening meditation
  • Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening
  • And our personal favourite for anyone trying to get a good night’s sleep - avoid going to bed angry.

If you find reading about other people’s experience useful, or have some advice to share, join the conversations on our HealthUnlocked forum.

Is your child disturbed by symptoms at night? Read our advice on asthma and your child's sleep. 

Who can I speak to?

Need some more advice? Speak to your GP or asthma nurse.

You can also call our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 and talk to an expert asthma nurse between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. Or get in touch with us on WhatsApp.