Struggling to sleep following a COVID-19 infection? You’re not alone, experts say

When Jen Martin tested positive for COVID-19 in early February, she was surprised by just how unwell she felt.

“I didn’t have a fever but I had very serious aches and pains, crazy lethargy, and a hacking cough,” she says.

“I certainly felt worse than I had expected to, having heard all of the stories about it being mild.”

For someone who is fully vaccinated and “pretty fit”, Dr Jen Martin was surprised by how much COVID-19 affected her.(Supplied)

Six weeks later, the Melbourne-based academic still feels pretty average, dealing with Regular headaches, daily fatigue, and disrupted sleep.

“In the early days, the cause [of my sleep problems] was obvious — I couldn’t stop coughing,” she says.

“But even since I’ve stopped coughing, I’ve noticed this very, very interrupted sleep pattern.”

Jen says she’s able to fall asleep reasonably quickly, but often finds herself awake two hours later.

She struggles to get back to sleep and stay asleep for more than an hour, before abruptly waking again — a cycle that repeats itself throughout the night.

“I try strategies to get back to sleep, knowing that I’ve got work the next day and I’m feeling really tired … but I just really struggle, it’s very frustrating.”

Early mornings, which are used to be the most productive part of her day, are now noticeably slower, on account of feeling “dozy”.

“I feel very grateful that I have a job that I can largely do from home,” Jen says.

“But there’s just this little voice in the back of my head that’s like, ‘Jeez, it would be nice to get a solid sleep one of these days’.”

Sleep disturbances seen in post-COVID patients

While most people with a mild or moderate case of COVID-19 recover within about two weeks, others experience lingering symptoms, such as fatigue and shortness of breath.

Sleep disturbances are a well-documented symptom of long COVID, which is generally regarded as the persistence (or emergence) of symptoms at least three months after a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

But respiratory and sleep physician Megan Rees says people can also experience sleep problems during the acute phase of a COVID-19 infection and in the weeks and months that follow.

A woman wearing a stethoscope and mask stands in a hospital room.
Dr Megan Rees is currently treating patients at the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s post-COVID clinic.(ABC News: Nico White)

“At least a third to half of our patients say [their sleep] is worse than it was before they got COVID-19,” says Dr Rees, who is head of the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Sleep and Respiratory unit.

When it comes to sleep disturbances, Dr Rees says people recently recovering from COVID-19 — and those diagnosed with long COVID — experience “a mixture of problems”.

“There seems to be a bit of insomnia, so difficulty being able to sleep at the time that you want, but also feeling tired and wanting to sleep during the daytime,” she says.

In addition to that, there is what we call ‘phase delay’ or a disruption to your natural circadian rhythm.

“People aren’t always finding it easy to be awake at the time they usually like to be awake, and have difficulty being asleep at the time they want to be asleep.”

What triggers sleep problems following COVID-19?

The cause is likely to be “multifactorial”, Dr Rees says, meaning there’s usually several factors involved.

“There’s likely to be, to some extent, a direct viral effect — so viruses cause a lot of inflammation in the body, and those inflammatory chemicals as they circulate can disrupt sleep,” she says.

“Predominantly, they make you more tiredd or wanting to sleep at different times, but they can also upset your natural rhythms.”

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