When you’ve got a cough that keeps you up at night, chances are you don’t spend those sleepless hours ruminating on the wonders of your immune system. But your cough is actually pretty amazing: it’s your body’s way of expelling mucus, microbes and other foreign particles from your respiratory tract to protect your lungs against infection or inflammation. While your doctor may have to determine if the source of your cough requires treatment — a cold usually resolves itself, while a sinus infection may call for antibiotics — there’s plenty you can do in the meantime to quiet your cough and get back to bed.
Chances are, that hacking cough that’s keeping you from getting some shut-eye isn’t your only symptom: cough and congestion usually go hand-in-hand, even if your nose isn’t all that stuffyor runny. Post-nasal drip, which happens when mucus drains down the back of your throat instead of out your nose, often produces a dry, tickly cough — especially at night. You can reduce the effects of post-nasal drip by drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day. Staying hydrated helps thin your mucus, making it easier to expel during waking hours. And when there’s less mucus sitting at the back of your throat, you’re less likely to cough through the night.
A dry environment can be a major obstacle to nighttime cough relief. That’s because dry air aggravates a sore throat, which inevitably leads to more coughing. Forced air heating and cooling systems can contribute to a dry environment, as can the cold winter months. To combat the situation, run a humidifier or vaporizer as you sleep. Adding humidity back into the air helps soothe your respiratory tract with every breath you take, leaving you less likely to cough. Running a humidifier during the day can be beneficial, too, because breathing warm, moist air helps loosen congestion, allowing you to expel more mucus before bedtime.
A cough often worsens in the evening, but if you find that yours is at its absolute worst when you’re lying down, it might be time to let gravity help. Using three or four pillows to elevate your head and upper body can help you breathe more easily if you’re congested; it also curbs the effects of post-nasal drip. This is also a common relief strategy for those affected by acid reflux, another condition that can cause or exacerbate nighttime coughing. If your nighttime cough happens to be a product of acid reflux, keeping your head and shoulders propped up makes it harder for irritating stomach acid to rise up into your throat and trigger a cough.
When staying hydrated, running a humidifier, expelling mucus and elevating your upper body in bed don’t do enough to suppress your nighttime cough, it’s time to seek immediate relief. First, try drinking a cup of tea with honey just before bedtime — warm beverages can help soothe a dry throat and quiet a cough. For longer lasting relief, try the following:
- Ask your doctor to recommend an over-the-counter medicine that’s right for your cough. If you have a dry cough that isn’t allergy-related, your doctor may simply advise you to take an OTC cough suppressant. If you’re coughing up phlegm, your doctor might recommend a cough suppressant with an expectorant to help thin and loosen your mucus.
- Choose a product that’s formulated to work for at least 12 hours, so you’re more likely to sleep through the night.
- Take the medicine as directed, following dosing and timing instructions exactly.
- Think of your OTC cough medicine as an “as-needed” treatment, and take it only when it’s truly necessary
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Cough
- Harvard Health Publications: That Nagging Cough — Common Causes, Cures for a Persistent Cough
- Cleveland Clinic: Overview of Chronic Cough
- American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery: Post-Nasal Drip
- Columbia University — Go Ask Alice: Constant Coughing Keeps Me Up at Night
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Symptom Relief