How To Sleep With A Cough
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Having a cough can be a frustrating experience — especially when it comes to falling asleep at night. If you are lying awake wondering, “How do I sleep with a cough?”, you are not alone. Sleep disruption is among the most common reasons patients with a cough end up seeking medical attention (1).
While sleeping with a cough can be difficult, there are some things you can do to help yourself get a better night’s sleep until it’s resolved.
How to Sleep with a Cough
Whatever the cause of your cough, it can be difficult to fall asleep — and stay asleep — when dealing with it. Here are a few strategies you can try to make sleeping with a cough easier.
Sleep in an Elevated Position
Lindsay Browning, chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, tells Sleepopolis that cold symptoms can feel worse a night because “when laying down, the mucus cannot drain in the same way it would when gravity is helping, leading to disturbed breathing or a cough caused by post nasal drip.”
One way to combat this, Browning says, is to keep your head elevated at night. This helps to drain the mucus and relieve sinus pressure, she explains.
“Lay on your back and use an extra pillow to prop up your head, or raise the head end of the bed itself, if possible,” Browning says.
If your cough is caused by GERD, sleeping with your head propped up can also make it harder for stomach acid to reflux (2).
Change Your Sleeping Position
Laura Purdy, MD, says that lying on your stomach could be one way to provide temporary relief by encouraging more effective drainage of mucus from your airways.
“In doing this, post nasal drip may also decrease and could provide temporary respite from coughing fits,” Purdy says.
Use a Humidifier
Humidifiers are a popular method for relieving a cough at night, as breathing in humid air can keep your nasal passages moist. Particularly in the winter, when air is dry because of the cold temperatures outdoors and the heat being pumped inside, having a little extra humidity could help with a cough.
However, while humidifiers are a popular go-to item for dealing with a cold, they aren’t backed by much scientific support. They also can present some additional harms if they aren’t kept properly cleaned. Over-humidifying your room can worsen allergy and asthma symptoms by creating a moist environment for dust mites and mold to grow, or you could be spraying similar allergens around the room if you aren’t properly cleaning your humidifier (3).
If you do use a humidifier, remember to keep it ultra-clean and only use the recommended cleaning agents (i.e., never use bleach or other cleaning chemicals that could leave residue in the humidifier, as it can be released into the air).
Try a Facial Steam Before Bed
Browning says that steam can help to loosen the mucus in your nasal passages, which improves congestion. One way to utilize steam is with a facial steam. Browning says you can do this by filling your sink with warm water and placing a towel over your head to trap the steam. Lean over the sink and as the steam builds, inhale deeply.
“Take care not to scald your face on the water or steam,” though, Browning warns.
Take a Steamy Shower Before Bed
Another way to use steam to decongest is to take a hot shower before bed. Browning advises taking a shower that is hot, but still comfortable, in order to generate steam.
“Make sure to close the door to your bathroom to create steam,” Browning says. “Take a few deep breaths to clear up your sinuses.”
She also adds that a warm bath or shower before bed can help promote sleep because as you get out of the warm water and start to cool down, the drop in internal temperature helps you to feel sleepy.
Take Cough Medicine or Using a Decongestant
“If you have a fever, blocked sinuses, or congestion, taking the right medication can help relieve symptoms, allowing you to feel relaxed and settled before bed,” says Browning. She advises steering clear of any medications with caffeine in them, as the caffeine will only keep you awake longer. The medications with caffeine will generally be labeled “non-drowsy.”
When choosing a cough medication, there are two main over-the-counter types: expectorants and suppressants (also sometimes called antitussives) (4). Expectorants work to make coughing up mucus easier by lubricating the airway and loosening the mucus. This results in your cough being more productive — AKA, you’ll actually cough up some of that gunk in your throat. This can relieve some of the discomfort from congestion, as well as rid your body of the mucus that could contain more bacteria or viruses (5).
Suppressants work in the opposite way — they suppress your reflex to cough. These medicines are meant for treating a severe dry cough, or one where you don’t have mucus (6). Suppressants can help you to sleep, as you won’t be kept up by coughing, but it’s important to remember these medicines just numb your reflex to cough — they don’t actually treat the underlying cause, so be sure to see your doctor if your cough is lingering (7).
A spoonful of honey is a longstanding home remedy for a cough, and there is some evidence that honey may improve cough frequency and cough severity, leading to a better night’s sleep (8).
Try eating a teaspoon of honey, or putting the honey into a cup of tea for some potential sore throat relief and to help suppress your cough (2). But remember: if you have a wet cough — AKA one with mucus — you may not want to suppress your cough.
Drink a Warm Beverage
A warm drink can also help relieve some of your cough symptoms before bed. One frequently cited older study suggests that drinking a warm beverage can offer some immediate relief from symptoms like runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chilliness, and tiredness, compared to a room-temperature drink, which only relieved runny nose, cough, and sneezing (9).
Whether you choose a hot toddy, tea, or another warm drink, it can be a pleasant and relieving way to ease your cough symptoms before bed. Just be sure to avoid dairy if you have a wet cough, which might make the mucus in your throat feel thicker (although dairy does not, as popular belief states, cause your body to produce more mucus) (10).
Why Is a Cough Worse at Night?
Even if you’ve been coughing all day, it can often seem like your cough has gotten much worse at night. What gives?
Purdy says, “Post nasal drip can trigger persistent coughing episodes, while being left without distractions during nighttime can make symptoms more noticeable.”
She also says that lying in a horizontal position can increase mucus accumulation, which can lead to irritation in your airways and lead to coughing episodes. That’s where the “sleeping in an elevated position” trick comes into play.
Sleeping Off a Cough
Browning says, “Our immune system is boosted overnight, meaning it is even more important to get a good night’s sleep when you are [feeling] poorly. If you don’t get enough sleep, you are likely to take longer to fight off the virus.”
If your cough is keeping you awake at night and preventing you from getting the sleep that will help you to recover, trying one of the tips and tricks above or seeking advice from your doctor is a good idea. Purdy says, “Incorporating strategies that include cough suppressants, practicing good sleep hygiene practices, and finding comfortable sleeping positions will allow for adequate rest while recovering from coughs.”
How Colds and Coughs Affect Your Sleep
Purdy tells Sleepopolis that coughing can significantly disrupt the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Having a cough “create[s] congestions, coughing fits, difficulty breathing, and difficulty resting, which all combine to impede quality restful slumber.”
She says coughing can even result in frequent awakenings, disrupting restorative restfulness.
Having your sleep disrupted by a cough can, in turn, affect your physical and mental health, according to Browning. She says it is important to try to remain calm and not stress too much if you aren’t able to fall asleep while sick, as this can make falling asleep even harder. It’s a frustrating situation since lying in bed trying to sleep — especially when you’re coughing — doesn’t feel particularly restful.
“If you are really struggling to get to sleep because of your symptoms, you could get up for a short while to help your body reset before going back to bed,” Browning says. “It’s often thought staying in bed with the lights off is the best method to help you fall back asleep — however, this can actually make you more stressed.”
Instead of lying in bed trying to force sleep and getting worked up about how you can’t sleep, Browning recommends going into a different room to read or listen to calming music.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
There are many different causes for coughing at night. You might have a respiratory illness like the flu, COVID-19, pneumonia, or bronchitis that is causing you to cough day and night (11). You might have postnasal drip causing mucus to collect in your throat, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) could be moving stomach acid into your windpipe, both of which can cause you to cough.
Some medications can cause a cough as a side effect and in some cases, a dry cough at night can be a sign of heart failure (2). Less commonly, a cough could be a sign of a more serious underlying condition, such as asthma, certain types of cancer, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (12).
With so many possibilities, it’s important to see your medical provider to determine what is causing any ongoing or concerning nighttime cough. If the cough persists for more than a few weeks, or is accompanied by other symptoms (think: shortness of breath, unexpected weight loss, fever, etc.), it’s probably time to see your doctor (7).
Purdy says that if you have a longstanding cough with severe chest pain, difficulty breathing, and/or are coughing up blood, it is best to consult a medical provider quickly for advice and diagnosis. She also recommends seeking medical advice if your cough is interfering with daily activities or significantly impacting your sleep.
Can laying on your stomach help with a cough?
Yes, laying on your stomach might help with a cough, if you have a wet cough. Purdy says this position can encourage more effective mucus drainage and prevent post-nasal drip. If that doesn’t help, the best sleeping position is the one that makes you the most comfortable.
Is sleeping sitting up better for a cough?
Sleeping sitting up or propping your head at an angle can help with a wet cough, as it helps decrease the mucus pooling in your throat, which improves breathing and reduces the irritation that leads to a cough, according to Purdy.
Is it good to sleep when you have a cough?
Yes, sleep is important for rest on any night, but can be especially helpful when dealing with an illness. Sleep is your body’s time to recover.
The Last Word From Sleepopolis
Sleeping with a cough can be frustrating, but incorporating some of these strategies might help you get the rest and recovery you need to fight off whatever is causing your cough. And when in doubt, consult your doctor to find the best solutions for you.
- Lee, K. K., & Birring, S. S. (2009). Cough and Sleep. Lung, 188(S1), 91–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00408-009-9176-0
- Godman H. Why are you coughing at night? Harvard Health. Published August 1, 2023. Accessed August 17, 2023. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/why-are-you-coughing-at-night
- Singh M, Singh M, Jaiswal N, Chauhan A. Heated, humidified air for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;8(8):CD001728. Published 2017 Aug 29. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD001728.pub6
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- Abuelgasim H, Albury C, Lee J. Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Evid Based Med. 2021;26(2):57-64. doi:10.1136/bmjebm-2020-111336
- Sanu A, Eccles R. The effects of a hot drink on nasal airflow and symptoms of common cold and flu. Rhinology. 2008;46(4):271-275. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19145994/
- Balfour-Lynn IM. Milk, mucus and myths. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2018;104(1):archdischild-2018-314896. doi:https://doi.org/10.1136/archdischild-2018-314896
- Penn Medicine. Cough. Penn Medicine. Published May 30, 2021. https://www.pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/patient-information/conditions-treated-a-to-z/cough
- Duvall M. Nighttime coughing keeping you awake? Mayo Clinic. Published January 28, 2021. https://communityhealth.mayoclinic.org/featured-stories/nighttime-cough
Browning, Lindsay. Personal interview. August 9, 2023.
Purdy, Laura. Personal interview. August 21, 2023.