You’re already not feeling great. And all you want to do is get a good night’s sleep. But then the coughing starts as soon as you hit the pillow — startling you awake and keeping you up all night.
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If you can’t sleep because of a cough, there are a few things you can do, from taking over-the-counter medication to using a cool-mist humidifier and drinking warm liquids.
Family medicine physician Elizabeth Rainbolt, MD, shares some tips on how to stop coughing at night and when it may be time to see your doctor.
Reasons you may be coughing
Your cough may be caused by many different factors or medical conditions, like:
- Cold or flu.
- Bronchitis or pneumonia.
- Whooping cough.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Sleep apnea.
- Certain medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors.
Some of these reasons may cause you to experience postnasal drip, which is when mucus runs down the back of your throat. This leads to the urge to cough.
How to relieve nighttime coughing
What kind of cough do you have? While the at-home treatments for relieving a cough at night may be the same for both a dry or wet cough, it’s important to know the difference.
“When you’re coughing up mucus or phlegm from your lungs, that’s considered a wet or productive cough,” explains Dr. Rainbolt. “And a dry or non-productive cough is when you cough without bringing up mucus or phlegm.”
Dr. Rainbolt notes that a dry cough can turn into a wet cough over time.
“When you first get a cold, it starts in your nose or sinuses and you have a dry cough,” she adds. “Your cold can work its way into your chest. And then, that’s when your dry cough can develop into a wet cough.”
Regardless of the type of cough you have, it can disrupt your sleep and not give your immune system a chance to heal.
“Your body needs time to heal, you need to be able to get rest,” says Dr. Rainbolt. “And if you’re constantly coughing, you’re interrupting your sleep cycles and you’re not going to be able to get rest to heal. It becomes a troublesome pattern.”
Relief for a productive or wet cough
If you have a wet cough, Dr. Rainbolt recommends the following at-home remedies:
- Use an expectorant. “During the day, if you have a wet cough it can be helpful to actually cough, which will remove some of that phlegm or mucus,” advises Dr. Rainbolt. Consider using an expectorant like guaifenesin to help achieve this. The over-the-counter medication thins out mucus and makes it easy for you to cough up mucus and phlegm.
- Turn on a cool-mist humidifier. At night, try using a cool-mist humidifier in your bedroom. “Getting moisture in the air can help relieve both a dry and wet cough,” she says. You want to keep your room’s humidity to about 40% to 50%.
- Drink warm liquids. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But drinking hot herbal tea or warm water with honey can soothe your cough and loosen mucus. And just staying hydrated with water throughout the day can help thin out mucus.
- Try a nasal saline spray. You may be able to thin out any secretions by using a nasal saline spray, which is a mixture of salt and water. A salt-water gargle, made with a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water, may also help.
- Consider a cough suppressant at night. If you don’t have any other health conditions like high blood pressure, you can try taking an over-the-counter cough suppressant. It can lessen your urge to cough as you sleep and can stop coughing at night.
- Take a hot shower before bed. A hot shower works similarly to a humidifier. It can help moisten the air, which can help clear your airways.
Relief for a non-productive or dry cough
You’re more likely to develop a dry cough if you have GERD, asthma or an upper respiratory infection. Many of the same at-home treatments for a wet cough can help a dry cough. In addition, Dr. Rainbolt suggests the following:
- Minimize dust and other allergens. You can accomplish this by using an air purifier, which will remove allergens that can irritate your throat. Taking a shower before bed also helps remove any outdoor allergens on your body and clothes like pollen.
- Use a lozenge or cough drop. Chances are you have some of these stashed away in your medicine cabinet. Using a lozenge or cough drop can help to alleviate a sore throat. Options that contain menthol can also help clear up your sinuses.
- Consider a decongestant. If your allergies are acting up, using an over-the-counter decongestant can help. These typically come in pills or as a nasal spray. If you have high blood pressure, you want to speak to your doctor before using a decongestant.
Other types of coughs
While a wet cough and a dry cough are the most common when you’re dealing with a cold, flu or allergies, there are also other types of cough you should be aware of. Those include:
- A whooping cough. This is caused by an infection that causes your cough to sound like a “whoop.”
- A barking cough. This can be a sign of croup. Your cough will sound like you’re barking.
- A wheezing cough. This can happen if your airways are blocked due to an infection or a chronic condition like asthma.
How to sleep with a cough
So, you’ve tried the remedies outlined above. But if you’re still wondering how to relieve coughing at night, Dr. Rainbolt says how you sleep can also affect your cough.
Best sleep positions if you have a cough
Should you use certain sleep positions to stop coughing?
Yes, says Dr. Rainbolt.
“Elevating your head is probably the best sleeping position,” she notes. “Whether it’s by adding another pillow or raising the head of your bed, this can help your cough by not allowing drainage to collect at the back of your throat too much.”
Make sure you don’t elevate your head too much, as that may cause neck pain.
And if you’re dealing with a dry cough, sleeping on your side instead of your back can help minimize irritation.
For whatever kind of cough you have, lying flat on your back can worsen postnasal drip.
When to see a doctor
You may not want to bother your doctor if you have a cough, but Dr. Rainbolt says that if it goes on for more than a week, it’s a good idea to reach out.
And you should reach out to your doctor sooner if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing.
- Fever over 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit (38.61 degrees Celsius).
- Swollen ankles.
- Chest pains.
- Pink-colored mucus or blood in your mucus.
When you see your doctor, they’ll listen to your lungs, look at your throat and ears, and check your oxygen levels. If it’s been a persistent cough, your doctor may also consider a chest X-ray, which can show any signs of pneumonia or other infections.
“There are a lot of reasons you may have a cough, so don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor if you have concerns,” encourages Dr. Rainbolt. “We can discuss symptoms and come up with a treatment plan that brings you some relief.”