Skip to Content

Why do you need to rest when you are sick?

When you are sick, it is important to get extra rest so your body can fight off the illness. There are several reasons why rest is so critical when you are not feeling well.

Your Immune System Needs to Focus on Healing

Your immune system is your body’s defense against germs and illness. When you are exposed to viruses or bacteria, your immune system kicks into high gear producing antibodies and activating white blood cells to attack the foreign invaders.

This ramped up immune response takes a lot of energy and resources. Your body needs to rest so it can direct its full efforts toward fighting off the bug making you sick. Getting good sleep, taking it easy, and avoiding strenuous activity allows your body to channel its energy toward immune functions rather than other tasks.

Think of your body like a city that is under attack. The authorities don’t want firefighters and police officers tied up with other duties when they need to be defending against the attack. Likewise, your body needs to marshal its disease-fighting resources without other distractions when you are sick.

Sleep Helps Boost Immune Function

Sleep is a critical component of resting and recovering from illness. While you sleep, your body produces cytokines and other immune system cells and proteins that target infection and inflammation. Getting enough sleep, about 7-9 hours per night for adults, enhances your immune response.

Lack of sleep prevents your body from fully healing. Ongoing sleep deprivation suppresses your immune system, reducing your ability to fight viruses and bacteria. Getting extra sleep when sick allows your body to produce more immune-boosting cytokines to help you recover.

In addition to more hours of sleep, it is also important to sleep during the right part of the 24-hour cycle. Healthy adults tend to produce the most cytokines between 10pm and 2am, so sleeping during those nighttime hours is ideal.

Fatigue Forces You to Rest

Feeling tired and fatigued is your body’s way of forcing you to slow down and get the rest it requires. Illnesses like the cold and flu cause fatigue as your immune system pumps out cytokines in response to the viruses.

Fever is another common symptom that accompanies illness. Fever makes you feel cold, achy and drowsy, which encourages you to bundle up in bed or on the couch. This conserves body heat and energy so your body can direct its internal resources toward fighting infection.

Feelings of tiredness and malaise act as protective mechanisms to promote rest and recovery. Respect these signals from your body and get some extra sleep and relaxation when you start feeling drained.

Activity Spreads Illness to Others

Getting lots of rest when sick not only supports your own recovery, it helps prevent spreading illness to others. Viruses like influenza, colds and norovirus are highly contagious, especially in the first few days of illness when symptoms are at their worst.

Going to school, work or social gatherings when you are at your sickest needlessly exposes others to your illness. Staying home to rest reduces the risk you will infect your friends, family, coworkers and others in your community.

Some illnesses like influenza are dangerous for vulnerable populations like the elderly, infants and those with weakened immune systems. By resting at the first signs of sickness rather than toughing it out, you help limit the spread of dangerous illnesses through your community.

How Much Rest Do You Need When Sick?

There is no set formula for how much rest is required when you are sick. General guidelines suggest getting at least 8-10 hours of sleep per night and taking it easy during your waking hours.

Listen to your body for cues about when to rest more. Excessive fatigue, muscle aches, loss of appetite and difficulty concentrating are signs you need more downtime. Don’t push yourself to do normal activities if your body is pleading for rest.

You may need to scale back your schedule significantly when illness strikes. For example, if you normally get 6 hours of sleep per night, aim for 9-10 hours when sick. Cut out nonessential obligations, ask for help with tasks like shopping and childcare, and give yourself permission to do nothing but lounge in bed watching movies if that is what your body needs.

The Type of Illness Matters

How much rest you need depends in part on the type of illness you have. Colds and flu call for more significant rest than mild gastrointestinal bugs or headaches.

If you have a contagious respiratory illness like influenza, missing several days of work is warranted to recover and avoid spreading the virus. You may be able to work from home with a mild stomach bug if you are feeling up to it.

Severe illnesses like pneumonia, bronchitis and COVID-19 require extended periods of rest and isolation. Give yourself permission to focus solely on healing and restoring your health if you contract one of these dangerous illnesses.

Tips for Getting Quality Rest

Here are some tips for getting rejuvenating rest when you are under the weather:

  • Cancel all nonessential obligations and appointments
  • Sleep in a cool, dark room to aid sleep
  • Avoid screens in bed for better sleep quality
  • Stay hydrated and eat nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Read, meditate or enjoy other quiet activities
  • Take soothing baths or showers
  • Ask friends and family for help so you can focus on yourself

Listen to Your Body About When to Return to Normal Life

Trying to go about your regular routine too quickly after illness can delay your recovery or cause relapse of symptoms. Use these guidelines to know when it’s safe to resume normal activities:

  • Finish any prescribed medications
  • Wait 24 hours after your fever subsides without medication
  • Allow 2-3 days of improvement in energy and other symptoms
  • Sleep well for 2-3 nights in a row
  • Regain your normal appetite
  • Don’t have excessive fatigue after modest exertion

Returning to exercise and physically demanding tasks too soon can throw your recovery off track. You may feel ready for light activity like short walks before plunging back into your full routine.

Listen to Your Healthcare Provider

Your doctor or other health provider may make recommendations about the level and duration of rest needed for your specific illness. Follow your provider’s advice regarding when you can return to work, school, athletic events or other obligations.

Ask your healthcare providers for a medical note excusing you from responsibilities if your absence will exceed 1-2 days. For severe illnesses, a note may be required to justify an extended absence.

If you were prescribed medication, make sure to finish the full course even if you start feeling better sooner. Failing to complete prescribed medications can impede recovery and contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Returning to Regular Activity

Getting back to your normal routine requires pacing yourself following illness. Attempting too much too fast can quickly deplete your energy and stamina.

Start with light exercise like short walks around your neighborhood. Listen to your body and rest when needed. Gradually increase the duration and intensity of activity over several days.

Similarly, ease back into work or school responsibilities. Speak with your employer or teachers about accommodations like reduced hours, extended deadlines or leniency with attendance policies as you regain strength.

Accept that full recovery may take 1-2 weeks, especially following severe illness. Honor your body’s needs and don’t try to rush the process.

When to Seek Medical Care

Make sure to seek medical care if you experience any of the following:

  • Difficulty breathing or chest pain
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • High fever lasting more than 3 days
  • Blood in phlegm or mucus
  • Inability to keep liquids down for 24 hours
  • Worsening or severe symptoms
  • Symptoms lasting more than 10 days

Pay attention to your body and don’t ignore signs of potential complications. Connect with your healthcare provider or seek emergency care if your condition seems outside the scope of standard illness.

Listen to Your Body

Resting when sick allows your body to harness its energy toward fighting infection and getting well. Make sleep a priority, reduce nonessential activities, and don’t overexert yourself when under the weather.

Trust your body to let you know when it’s time to resume normal life. Delaying full activity until you have adequately rested helps prevent relapse and supports long-term wellness. With proper rest, you can bounce back faster and healthier.