image of person with nighttime cough in bed

Nighttime Cough Keeping You Awake? Here's What to Do About It

/ October 7, 2020

There are plenty of things that can keep us awake at night. The streetlamp outside your window that shines right onto your bed. A partner or pet who consistently shifts and moves throughout the night. A room that gets too hot or too cold. Few things seem to be as nagging and exasperating as nighttime coughing, however.

Several studies discuss how much nighttime coughing can drastically impact sleep quality. One such study lists a myriad of health issues that cause chronic coughing, such as lung disease, gastroesophageal reflux, COPD, and asthma, and how these conditions affect sleep. According to another study, “It is uncommon for healthy people to cough at night; however, approximately 50% of patients with chronic cough report sleep disruption due to cough.”

So, what do you do when you go to bed with a tickle in your throat and end up coughing throughout the night, often to the dismay of your partner?

Luckily, with some helpful information and valuable tips, you can ease or even eliminate your nighttime cough. Here, we're breaking down what causes nighttime coughing in the first place and sharing how to stop nighttime coughing from ruining your sleep.

Causes of nighttime coughing

The reasons behind nighttime coughing can range from the short-term (like a cold or flu) to the long-term. A few long-term causes of nocturnal coughing include allergies, acid reflux, asthma, and even heart disease, says Carol S. Thelen, family nurse practitioner with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

The reason why these ailments result in coughing that happens specifically at night? The answer is simple: Lying down can bring about coughing, says Thelen.

When it comes to heart disease, for example, coughing can be “caused by being horizontal while the heart is inadequate to pump fluid through the body, including the lungs,” she says.

While lying down, acid reflux can cause coughing when acid flows into the esophagus. Allergies, meanwhile, encourage post-nasal drip that can lead to coughing. With asthma, the airways can narrow during sleep, which can produce a cough.

How to stop nighttime coughing

Anyone with a nighttime cough can benefit from keeping upholstery, pets, and potted plants to a minimum, including keeping them out of the bedroom, says Thelen. If you smoke, Thelen advises quitting, which can not only improve your nighttime cough but your health in general. (Here's what you need to know about sleeping next to a sick person.)

If you have asthma, meanwhile, “use your maintenance inhaler as prescribed, take any oral medications as prescribed, and use your Albuterol rescue inhaler before bedtime,” Thelen recommends.

If you have acid reflux, Thelen suggests not eating for three hours before lying down. “Also, avoid provoking foods and alcohol,” she says.

For those with asthma, acid reflux, or another condition that contributes to nighttime coughing (such as allergies or heart disease), always follow the advice of your healthcare provider, says Thelen.

Sleep positioning and bedding to prevent nighttime coughing

After heeding your doctor's advice, cutting out problematic foods before bed, and making lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking, there are other things you can do to alleviate your persistent nighttime cough.

If you've been diagnosed with allergies or you're asthmatic, Thelen stresses the importance of hypoallergenic pillows and pillowcases. “Launder them appropriately and frequently,” she adds.

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If you deal with acid reflux every night, there is a smart way to prevent that troublesome nighttime coughing. “If you're suffering from gastric reflux, elevate the head of the bed four to six inches, such as putting blocks under the feet of the head of the bed,” says Thelen. It just might send that irritating acid back down to your stomach instead of your esophagus. (You can also use an adjustable base to raise the head of your bed.)

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Perhaps you've implemented these tricks and you're still wrestling with nighttime coughing. In that case, a visit to your doctor might be in order. No matter how you tackle the coughing, we're sure that you and your partner will benefit from improved sleep after you've quieted your cough.

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