Research suggests a link between allergic rhinitis and several sleep problems, including sleep apnea. Lifestyle strategies may help prevent sleep apnea. If it develops, a doctor might prescribe a device to help you sleep.

“Allergic rhinitis” is the medical term for allergies that cause sneezing and a runny or stuffed-up nose. Nasal allergies are extremely common. Contact with pollen, dust, mold, or pet hair can trigger nasal allergies.

People with this type of allergy may have an increased risk of sleep apnea. This article explores current research into how allergic rhinitis affects sleep.

Research has linked allergic rhinitis to a breathing disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

OSA occurs when the muscles in your throat relax and temporarily close during sleep, cutting off airflow for a few seconds or more. These episodes repeatedly occur at night and can cause symptoms such as loud snoring or gasping. The episodes can also cause daytime headaches and drowsiness.

Many people with OSA also experience allergies. A 2017 study involving 240 participants with OSA found that about 27% also experienced allergic rhinitis.

Similarly, a 2018 meta-analysis of 44 studies found that 35% of adults and 45% of children with OSA also have allergic rhinitis.

However, the authors concluded it’s not yet clear how the two conditions are related, particularly whether allergic rhinitis is a risk factor for OSA.

Other research exploring the link between allergic rhinitis and OSA has shown mixed results. A 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis indicated that while some studies suggest a connection between allergic rhinitis and OSA, others do not.

While it seems clear that many people have both conditions, more research is needed to understand how they are related.

Allergic vs. nonallergic rhinitis and sleep apnea

Rhinitis refers to nasal inflammation. An allergen triggers allergic rhinitis. Nonallergic rhinitis has many potential causes, including:

  • infections
  • weather
  • medications
  • stress
  • hormones

Like allergic rhinitis, there might also be a link between nonallergic rhinitis and sleep apnea. The 2017 study cited above found a similar prevalence of allergic and nonallergic rhinitis among people with OSA.

Other studies have found a high prevalence of OSA in people with a condition called nonallergic rhinitis with eosinophilia syndrome (NARES).

NARES causes symptoms similar to allergic rhinitis but without a clear allergen trigger.

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Nasal allergies can make it more difficult to breathe through your nose at night. This might make it harder to fall and stay asleep.

It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a link between allergic rhinitis and other sleep problems, according to the 2020 review cited above. Some of these sleep problems include:

While allergy treatments might help you breathe better at night, they’re not likely to resolve sleep apnea.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, talk with a doctor to find the appropriate treatment. Be sure to mention that you also have allergies.

For people with moderate to severe OSA who also have allergies, using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine at night can help relieve symptoms.

Your doctor might suggest using a mask that covers both your nose and mouth instead of just your nose so that your CPAP machine can deliver oxygen through your mouth when you are congested.

If you already have allergic rhinitis, you might be concerned about developing OSA.

It’s sometimes possible to prevent sleep apnea. You can try the following lifestyle strategies:

  • getting regular exercise
  • eating a balanced, nutrient-dense diet
  • limiting or avoiding alcohol
  • quitting smoking
  • sleeping on your side instead of your back
  • avoiding sleeping pills
  • taking allergy medication
  • rinsing your nasal passages (sinus flush)

Keep in mind that it’s not always possible to prevent sleep apnea. Some risk factors — such as your age, sex, and genetics — are beyond your control.

In general, nasal congestion can affect your breathing at night and, in turn, your sleep quality. Allergic rhinitis is common in people with sleep apnea, even if the link between the two conditions is unclear.

It’s important to seek treatment for both conditions. Be sure to explain to your doctor if you think your allergies are affecting your nighttime breathing.

While treating allergies won’t necessarily resolve sleep apnea, it can help you breathe better at night. Your doctor can evaluate whether additional treatments are required for sleep apnea.