If you didn’t have sleep issues before COVID, you just might after—particularly if the virus hospitalized you.
That’s according to a new study published in The Lancet, which found that sleep disturbances were common among those who had been admitted due to the disease.
Such disturbances, found in 62% of study participants, were likely to last at least a year, the United Kingdom-based researchers noted after meeting with nearly 2,500 COVID patients hospitalized during the pandemic’s first two years. Some required critical care in the hospital, while others did not.
The study was the first to highlight the association between sleep disruption, a commonly reported symptom in long COVID, and breathlessness, another long COVID symptom. Anxiety and reduced muscle function also seemed to play a role in post-COVID sleep issues, and both have been linked to long COVID, the researchers noted.
Sleep disturbance is a common complaint among those who’ve been hospitalized for a variety of issues. Those who had been hospitalized with COVID, however, slept 65 minutes longer, on average, and saw lower sleep efficiency and regularity compared to patients who had been hospitalized for other causes, researchers found.
The study suggests that sleep disturbances could be an “important driver” of long COVID, the researchers assert, suggesting that “interventions targeting poor sleep quality could be used to manage multimorbidity and convalescence following hospital admission for COVID-10, with the aim of potentially improving patient outcomes.”
In a commentary on the piece, researchers at the University of California San Diego noted that sleep disorders are “exceedingly common,” with obstructive sleep apnea affecting an estimated 1 billion worldwide, and insomnia affecting roughly 10% of adults.
Thus, it’s too early to recommend that all COVID patients discharged from the hospital are screened for sleep and respiratory problems, they wrote.
Who’s most at risk for sleep issues after COVID?
Among those who had been hospitalized with COVID-19, those with the following qualities tended to suffer from poorer sleep quality, the U.K.-based researchers found:
- Younger than those who experienced good sleep
- Higher BMI
- Previous diagnosis of depression or anxiety
- Previous difficulty breathing
- Previous poor quality sleep
- Lower alcohol consumption than those who experienced good sleep
People with the following qualities tended to have the worst sleep following COVID:
- Those with a pre-existing diagnosis of one of the following conditions:
- Kidney disease
The researchers’ findings overlap with that of a broader 2015 study, which found that among older adults, the following types of people were most consistently at risk for sleep disturbances:
- Those with depressed mood
- Those with physical illness
How to cope with COVID-related sleep disturbances
The new research hits “right on the money,” Dr. Luis Ostrosky—chief of infectious diseases and epidemiology at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann in Texas, and the infectious diseases director for UTHealth Houston’s COVID-19 Center of Excellence—tells Fortune.
“It’s not infrequent that we hear that people have weird dreams during the acute COVID phase, and people complain about insomnia long-term after,” whether they were hospitalized with the virus or not, Ostrosky says. That’s likely because COVID infiltrates the central nervous system.
The following options often help patients who are dealing with new-onset sleep disorders after COVID, he says:
- Developing good sleep hygiene, including setting a regular bedtime, winding down before bed, and avoiding caffeine and other stimulants several hours before bed
- Taking melatonin, a non-prescription supplement that helps many people fall asleep
- Discussing insomnia prescription medication with their doctor
For some with post-COVID sleep issues, basic treatments work exceedingly well, he says. That’s good news, given that there are no specific treatments for with post-COVID sleep difficulties.
His advice to those who are struggling with sleep, whether or not they think there’s a COVID tie: consult a sleep specialist, rather than ordering a sleep study online that can be completed at home.
Sleep specialists “have a lot to offer” beyond just sleep studies, he says. “There are many, many reasons people don’t sleep well. It’s a really good investment, and worth your while.”