Coughing at Night: Why It Happens and How to Treat It

Coughing at Night: Why It Happens and How to Treat It
22.01.2024

Coughing can become bothersome if it’s constantly happening at night. Many factors can be responsible for coughing at night, like the environment, medications, or how you sleep.

Whether you have a wet or dry cough at night, there are options to treat it, such as avoiding irritants, trying aromatic products, or using a humidifier. Here’s what else you should know about nighttime coughing and what else you can do to stop it.

Why You’re Coughing at Night

It’s generally normal to cough. “When you cough, your body is responding to some type of irritant in your throat or airway, whether it be an allergen like dust or mucus in your throat from a cold,” Diondra Atoyebi, DO, a Georgia-based family medicine physician at Piedmont Physicians Monroe Family Practice.

Coughing when you’re trying to get some sleep may be for several reasons, including:

  • Environment: Your environment might be the culprit for your coughs at night. “Dry air, like in the winter, can irritate your nose, throat, and airway, making it itchy and naturally making you want to cough,” said Dr. Atoyebi.
  • Medications: Some medications can trigger asthma symptoms, like coughing at night. They include angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE) inhibitors, beta-blockers, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • Postnasal drip: Postnasal drip is when mucus drains from your nose to your throat from a cold or the flu. “[L]ying down can allow the mucus drainage to slide down into your throat, which will activate your coughing reflex,” Kathleen Dass, MD, of the Michigan Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Center, told Health.
  • Respiratory conditions: Lung-related conditions—such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), pertussis (whooping cough), and pneumonia—can cause nighttime coughing. You might cough because of air irritants in the case of asthma, or because of mucus, in the case of COPD.567
  • Sleep position: A worsening nighttime cough may also happen due to your sleeping position. A supine position, where you lie on your back, may make it harder for your body to clear your airways.
  • Upper airway conditions: Dry cough at night might be due to throat-affecting health conditions like acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). “If you have acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), that loss of gravity means the acid can come back up your esophagus, which can make you cough,” explained Dr. Dass.
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How To Treat a Nighttime Cough

Knowing the underlying issue of a wet or dry cough at night can help you figure out the best way to relieve it. A healthcare provider can offer treatments or strategies to manage any health conditions responsible for your coughing. You can also use some self-care tips to help you stop coughing at night.

1. Avoid Irritants

You may be exposed to irritants in your environment, like dust or smoke, that may make you cough at night. Avoid or limit your exposure to those irritants by:

  • Closing windows
  • Not being around secondhand smoke
  • Taking a bath or shower and changing clothes if you’ve been outdoors
  • Turning on an air purifier, if available
  • Using dust mite covers for pillows and mattresses

2. Choose Certain Aromatic Products

Some scented products may reduce nighttime coughing if they’re not irritants for your cough. One review said aromatic ointments containing camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol can decrease coughing frequency and sensitivity.

3. Consider a Medication Switch

Talk with a healthcare provider about switching medications if they’re the reason for your cough. Providers can determine if there are any alternatives they can prescribe. You should consult a provider first to stop taking your prescribed medications.

4. Gargle Warm Liquids

Before going to bed, consider gargling a warm liquid like water. Warm liquids can thin out the mucus in your throat and soothe your throat at the same time. Fluids also make it so nothing irritates your throat anymore, and your cough ceases.

5. Quit Smoking

Not smoking can be beneficial for reducing cough. Research found that, compared to people who used to or have never smoked, those who smoke cigarettes are more likely to report chronic coughing. Also, those who quit smoking may start coughing less frequently in a few weeks.

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6. Take OTC Medicines

Over-the-counter medicines can make the cough more manageable. Cough suppressants like guaifenesin can keep you from coughing and help break up mucus. Still, this option may not be recommended for acute coughing from the common cold.

Also, decongestants can help with postnasal drip. However, if you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, check with a healthcare provider before using decongestants. These types of medicines can increase your blood pressure further.

7. Try Cough Drops or Hard Candy

Cough drops or hard candies can be helpful for dry or tickling coughs. It may be best to use cough drops in moderation, even though they can be beneficial. One study found that using cough drops too often may lead to more severe coughing.

8. Use a Humidifier or Vaporizer

If dry air or coughing from a cold is your issue, consider turning on a humidifier or vaporizer. Using humidifiers or vaporizers can increase moisture in the air, lessening your cough.

Best Positions for Sleeping With a Cough

If you want to get more restful sleep while you have a cough, the way you sleep matters. You can try sleeping:

  • In a semi-prone position—using several pillows to prop your chest up, for example—to help prevent mucus buildup in your throat
  • On your side, which is especially helpful for individuals with asthma, COPD, and GERD

Also, consider changing positions if you are awake to reduce coughing.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

Most coughs go away on their own eventually. If you’ve had nighttime coughing—or any coughing for that matter—that is long-lasting and doesn’t get better, see a healthcare provider. You’ll also want to seek medical attention for persistent coughing that comes with:

  • Barking or whooping sounds
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Night sweats
  • A swollen face and hives
  • Thick mucus or blood
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Wheezing
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A Quick Review

Coughing is normal but can be uncomfortable when it happens uncontrollably or if you have a dry cough at night. Health conditions like asthma or GERD, sleeping positions, and the air in your environment are just some causes of nighttime coughing.

You can stop coughing at night with options like taking cough medicines or quitting smoking. See a healthcare provider if you cough at night and it doesn’t go away or accompanies symptoms like night sweats or wheezing.

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