It happens to everyone: That annoying sensation in your throat starts as a tickle and then escalates to a hacking cough just as you’re trying to fall asleep, or it wakes you up in the middle of the night. Coughing is your body’s way of ridding your lungs and airways of irritants such as mucus, microbes, and pollutants. Read on to learn how to stop coughing at night and why it happens in the first place.
How to stop coughing
Depending on what’s causing it, there are different remedies and lifestyle changes you can try to relieve or prevent nighttime coughing in both adults and children.
1. Incline the head of your bed
It’s easier for irritants to make their way to your throat to trigger coughing when you’re lying down. Try propping up some pillows to raise your head.
2. Use a humidifier
Dry, warm air can irritate your throat and airways. Some people also cough when they turn their heater on in the winter. This is due to the release of pollutants that built up in the heating ducts. A humidifier that produces a cool mist can help keep the air in your bedroom moist. This can keep your throat feeling better.
3. Try honey
Honey and a hot drink can help loosen mucus in your throat. Mix two teaspoons of honey into an caffeine-free tea, such as herbal tea, to drink before bed. You should never give honey to children younger than 1 year, however.
4. Tackle your GERD
Lying down makes it easier for stomach acid to backflow into your esophagus. This condition is known as acid reflux. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic form of acid reflux and a common cause of nighttime coughing. But there are some lifestyle changes you can try to reduce a cough caused by GERD. For example:
- Avoid foods that trigger your GERD. Keep a food diary to help you figure out what these foods are if you’re not sure.
- Don’t lie down for at least 2.5 hours after eating.
- Raise the head of your bed by 6 to 8 inches.
5. Use air filters and allergy-proof your bedroom
When your immune system overreacts to an allergen, allergy symptoms such as coughing can occur. Dust allergy is a common cause of cough, especially at night when you’re exposed to dust mites or pet dander on your bedding.
Here are some strategies to mite-proof your bedroom:
- Use allergy covers for pillow cases, duvets, mattresses, and box springs to reduce and prevent dust mites.
- Wash bedding in hot water once per week.
- Run a HEPA air filter in your bedroom to remove common allergens.
- Don’t let pets on your bed or in your bedroom.
- If you have carpeting, vacuum frequently with a HEPA vacuum cleaner.
6. Prevent cockroaches
The saliva, feces, and body parts of cockroaches may cause coughing and other allergy symptoms. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, cockroaches are a common cause of allergies and asthma attacks. You can help prevent or reduce cockroaches in your home with these strategies:
- Keep food containers sealed so they’re unattractive to cockroaches.
- Eliminate piles of newspapers and magazines that attract dust and give cockroaches places to hide.
- Use an exterminator to eliminate a severe cockroach infestation.
7. Seek treatment for a sinus infection
Stuffed-up sinuses or a sinus infection may cause postnasal drip, especially when lying down. Postnasal drip tickles the back of your throat and leads to coughing.
If nighttime coughing is caused by a medical condition such as a sinus infection, it’s important to get treatment. You may need a prescription from your doctor for antibiotics. You can also use a neti pot to help clear sinuses.
8. Rest and take decongestants for a cold
Your coughs may be caused by the common cold. Your cough may worsen at night or when you lie down. Rest, chicken soup, fluids, and time are usually all it takes to beat a cold. Severe coughs due to a cold, however, may be treated with cough medication in adults and children older than 6 years. Decongestant sprays that help reduce postnasal drip may also be used in adults and children older than 6 years.
9. Manage asthma
Asthma causes airways to become narrow and inflamed. A dry cough is a common symptom of asthma. You may need a prescription inhaler to treat asthma.
10. Stop smoking
A chronic cough is a common side effect of long-term smoking. It’s not a quick fix, but if you’re a smoker, talk to your doctor about programs to help you kick the habit. Not only will your cough improve, your overall health will, too.
Steam from a vaporizer in your child’s room may help calm a cough. For barking coughs, take your child in a steam-filled bathroom for about 20 minutes to help them breathe more easily. Exposure to cool air may relieve some coughs, but be careful if your child has asthma as it may aggravate an asthma cough.
If your child is younger than 3 years, don’t give them cough drops. Cough drops are a choking hazard for young children.
You should get medical help right away if your child’s cough is barky or croupy or accompanied by:
- a fever
- fast breathing or difficulty breathing
You should also call the doctor immediately if your child’s cough ends with a “whooping” sound or produces green, yellow, or bloody phlegm.
For severe coughing
Most coughs go away on their own, but severe nighttime coughing may be a sign of a serious condition. For example, heart failure can cause a chronic cough that worsens at night. Respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and COPD also cause severe, chronic cough. Lung cancer and blood clots in the lungs are less common causes of severe coughs.
Get medical help if you have a cough and:
- a fever of 100˚F (38˚C) or above
- trouble breathing
- swelling in your legs or abdomen
- green, yellow, or bloody phlegm
- it lasts more than three weeks