7 Signs It’s Time for a New Pillow

You might not think about it, but pillows have an expiration date—and they could cause pain and other health problems if you don't replace them.

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Your pillow doesn’t pass this “shoe test”

01_pillow_signs_its_time_for_a_new_pillow_istock/penkanyaAs a rule of thumb, you should replace feather, down, and synthetic-filled pillows every 18 months, and get a new memory foam pillow after you’ve had it for three years. Not sure if your pillow makes the cut? A simple test can help you figure it out, says Michael Breus, PhD, clinical sleep specialist and author of The Power of When. “Fold it in half and put a shoe on top,” he says. “If the shoe flips off, your pillow is good.” Here's how to tell if you should replace your mattress.

You’ve changed sleeping positions

02__postions_its_time_for_a_new_pillow_istock/gilaxiaYour sleeping position determines the type of pillow best for propping your head up comfortably. Back sleepers, for instance, might just need a thin pillow to keep their necks straight. On the other hand, side sleepers need something thicker to keep their heads from tilting toward their shoulders. When you adjust your usual sleeping position—like switching to your side to stop snoring, or lying flat to avoid shoulder soreness—your old pillow might not keep your spine in its natural position anymore, says W. Christopher Winter, MD, president of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Clinic and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It. “If you’ve always been on your back and now you’re on your side and now you need your cervical spine up, your pillow might not give it to you,” he says. Find the best sleep position for your health problems here.

You wake up sore

03_sore_signs_its_time_for_a_new_pillow_istock/deandrobotOver time, your pillow gets beaten down by use and loses its shape. The padding that once kept you comfy all night might not give the same level of support anymore. After spending all night with your spine twisted, you could wake up with back, neck, or shoulder pain—and it could even travel down to the hips or knees. “It’s usually pretty apparent, especially when you first wake up,” says Dr. Winter. “It’s stiff and takes a while to get up.” Use these tips when you have morning back pain.

You don’t feel refreshed in the morning

04_refeshed_signs_its_time_for_a_new_pillow_istock/peopleimagesDuring your deepest stages of sleep, most of your brainwaves are slow-moving delta waves, which help your body restore and rejuvenate. But neck pain from your pillow could interrupt those deep-sleep brainwaves. “When a person is in pain, it will interfere with their sleep patterns,” says Dr. Breus. “For example, we see something called alpha delta sleep.” When this happens, alpha waves—the ones usually prominent when you’re relaxed but still awake—become more active and beat out the deltas, making for a less restful night. Don't miss these other signs you aren't getting enough deep sleep.

Tension headaches are becoming regular

05_headache_signs_its_time_for_a_new_pillow_istock/dolgachovWhen you’re sleeping on an unsupportive pillow, your upper body could start experiencing tension from being in an improper position. Eventually, that stress could turn into a tension headache. “We hold stress in the upper arms or neck, and gradually, as time passes, it sort of radiates back into the head,” says Dr. Winter. Unlike a migraine, which is often pounding pain behind the eyes, a tension headache caused by your pillow won’t feel so targeted, he says. Here's what to do if you wake up with a headache.

Your posture is no good when you’re asleep

06_posture_signs_its_time_for_a_new_pillow_istock/andreypopovTo figure out if your pillow is doing its job, have your partner check your sleeping posture, or set up a mirror near your bed to see for yourself. “Imagine a rod going through the top of your head down your spine and ending up at your bum,” says Dr. Winter. If your body is sagging in spots—especially around the neck—it could be time for a new pillow.Here's what to do if you wake up with a stiff neck.

You always wake up sneezing

07_sneezing_signs_its_time_for_a_new_pillow_istock/tommlYou might not realize (or even want to think about it), but pillows can be a cozy breeding ground for dust mites. With your face resting against it all night, those mites could irritate allergies or asthma. “People who have dust mite allergies can feel contested or cough or sneeze or not feel as well at night,” Dr. Winter says. After you crawl out of bed and move on with your day, though, those symptoms will probably go away. Start with a new pillow for a fresh start, and if your symptoms continue, consider stashing the pillow in the freezer at night to kill the mites before they lay eggs, Dr. Winter suggests. Read more weird things that make allergies worse.

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