There is still much to learn about COVID-19 and its long-term effects on people who contract it.
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For about 80% of people who have a mild reaction to COVID-19, their symptoms resolve in about two weeks. Others with more severe cases need three to six weeks to recover. An important area of study is currently focusing on a third group known as the COVID-19 long-haulers, people who experience new or prolonged symptoms more than three to four weeks after infection. COVID-19 long-haulers may need several months to recover, and even then some additional symptoms and conditions like sleep disturbances tend to appear and persist along the way.
“Sleep disturbance is one of the most common symptoms in patients who have had COVID-19,” says sleep medicine specialist Cinthya Pena Orbea, MD. “They report insomnia, fatigue, brain fog, and sometimes you even see circadian rhythm disturbances.”
Dr. Pena Orbea shares what we know so far about the link between COVID-19 and sleep disorders and what we can do to help alleviate some of these symptoms.
Is insomnia a symptom of COVID-19?
Called “coronasomnia,” COVID-19-induced insomnia is often attributed to stress, anxiety, depression and other pandemic-related mental health issues.
“Long haul symptoms are a new phase of the pandemic,” says Dr Pena Orbea. “This is an area we are still investigating.”
Although we have identified more than 50 long-term effects of COVID-19, some studies suggest that neuropsychiatric symptoms like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and insomnia may worsen over time. . And according to Dr. Pena Orbea, people who had mental health problems before contracting COVID-19 are at higher risk of developing more severe anxiety and depression. This often results in someone developing a sleep disorder.
“The direct cause of long-haul symptoms remains unknown,” says Dr. Pena Orbea. “Clinicians and researchers are exploring several possibilities that include a persistent inflammatory state or an inadequate antibody response, and there is another thought that there is ongoing viral activity that is causing organ damage.”
And while general fatigue is a symptom of COVID-19, sleep disturbances like insomnia can set in for up to weeks after you first contract the virus. So, at first glance, the sleep disorder may not seem related, but chances are it’s a result of contracting the virus itself.
How long does it last?
There is currently little data to determine exactly how long COVID-19-induced sleep disturbances may last. According to Dr. Pena Orbea, this could last up to 12 months after starting treatment.
What other sleep problems are associated with COVID-19?
More often than not, Dr. Pena Orbea has seen circadian rhythm disorders occur as a result of COVID-19. In these cases, people have a delayed sleep cycle where they fall asleep much later in the evening or earlier in the morning. This delayed cycle extends into the next day, causing people to feel groggy, suffer from chronic fatigue, or wake up later than they want.
What helps with COVID-19 related insomnia?
“Sleep is extremely important for the overall functioning of our body, including our metabolic systems and our immune system,” says Dr. Pena Orbea. “Since sleep is important for concentration and memory function, it will improve how patients recover from illness and impact their quality of life.”
To treat sleep disorders, including those caused by COVID-19, doctors often turn to cognitive behavioral therapy, light therapy, melatonin, or a mixture of methods to help correct your sleep schedule and improve your sleep hygiene.
When to see your doctor
This can be a tough question for some people, because it’s easy to assume that your sleep loss is the result of a long day at work, moderate stress, or a one-time glitch. But Dr. Pena Orbea suggests that any symptom related to insomnia is reason for a checkup.
“It’s important to see your doctor any time you develop a new symptom, as it could be a sign or symptom of another disease and is difficult to discern,” says Dr Pena Orbea. “If you’re experiencing symptoms that interfere with your daily life, that’s when you should call your doctor.”