If your cough is keeping you up all night, you’re not alone. Colds and flus cause the body to produce excess mucus. When you lie down, that mucus can drip down the back of your throat and trigger your cough reflex.
The cough that brings up mucus is known as a “productive” or wet cough. A cough that doesn’t bring up mucus is known as an “unproductive” or dry cough. Coughing at night can make it more difficult to fall asleep and affect your quality of life.
There are several causes of nighttime dry cough.
Most dry coughs are the result of infections like the common cold and flu. Acute cold and flu symptoms typically last about one week, but some people experience lingering effects.
When cold and flu symptoms irritate the upper airway, it can take some time for that damage to heal. While your airways are raw and sensitive, almost anything can trigger a cough. This is especially true at night, when the throat is at its driest.
Dry coughs can last for weeks after the acute symptoms of your cold or flu disappear.
Asthma is a condition that causes the airways to swell and narrow, making it difficult to breathe. Chronic coughing is a common symptom. Asthmatic coughs can be either productive or unproductive. Coughing is often worse during the night and early morning hours.
Coughing is rarely the only symptom of asthma. Most people also experience one or more of the following:
- shortness of breath
- tightness or pain in the chest
- coughing or wheezing attacks
- a whistling sound during exhale
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a type of chronic acid reflux. It happens when stomach acid rises into the esophagus. Stomach acid can irritate the esophagus and trigger your cough reflex.
Other symptoms of GERD include:
- chest pain
- regurgitation of food or sour liquid
- feeling like there’s a lump in the back of your throat
- chronic cough
- chronic sore throat
- mild hoarseness
- difficulty swallowing
Postnasal drip happens when mucus drips from your nasal passageways down into your throat. It happens more easily at night when you’re lying down.
Postnasal drip typically occurs when your body is producing more mucus than normal. It can happen when you have a cold, flu, or allergy. As mucus drips down the back of your throat, it can trigger your cough reflex and lead to nighttime coughing.
Other symptoms of postnasal drip include:
- sore throat
- feeling of a lump in the back of the throat
- trouble swallowing
- runny nose
Less common causes
There are a few other reasons why you could be coughing at night. Less common causes of dry cough at night include:
Most dry coughs can be treated at home with home remedies and over-the-counter medications.
Menthol cough drops
Menthol cough drops are medicated throat lozenges that have a cooling, soothing effect. Sucking on one before you get into bed may help lubricate your throat and prevent irritation during the night. These cough drops, which are available at your local drug store, should never be used while lying down, because they present a choking hazard.
Humidifiers add moisture to the air. You produce less saliva during sleep, which means your throat is drier than usual. When your throat is dry, it’s more sensitive to irritants in the air that can trigger an episode of coughing.
Running a humidifier while you sleep will help keep your throat moist, which should protect it from irritants and give it an opportunity to heal.
If your coughing is preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep, you may want to consider repositioning yourself. When you lie down, gravity pulls the mucus in your nasal passageways down into your throat.
Thick mucus can trigger your cough reflex on its own, but even normal mucus can cause problems, as it can contain allergens and irritants.
To avoid this problem, prop yourself up on several pillows so that your body is at a 45-degree angle (between sitting up and lying down). Try this for a few nights to give your throat a chance to heal.
Irritants like dust, pet hair, and pollen can circulate around the house all day and night. If someone in your household smokes or you use a wood-burning fire for heat, make sure to keep the door to your bedroom closed at all times.
Take other precautions, like keeping pets out of the bedroom and keeping windows closed during allergy season. A HEPA air purifier in the bedroom can help cut down on cough-inducing irritants. Also look for allergy-proof bedding and mattress covers.
Honey is a natural cough suppressant and anti-inflammatory agent. In fact, one found that it was more effective at reducing nighttime cough in children than OTC cough medicine. Add a teaspoon of raw honey to tea or warm water to soothe a sore throat. Or just take it straight.
Drink plenty of fluids
Hydration is more important to the healing process than most people know. Keeping hydrated helps keep your throat moist, which is key to protecting it from irritants. Aim to drink about eight large glasses of water each day. When you’re sick, it helps to drink more. Consider adding herbal tea or warm lemon water to the menu.
If you think you might have GERD, then you should speak with a doctor about your treatment options. In the meantime, there are a few OTC medications that may help prevent symptoms like nighttime cough, these include:
Sometimes, home remedies are not enough. If you want to be a bit more aggressive, take a look at the following medicinal options.
Decongestants are OTC medications that treat congestion. Viruses like the common cold and the flu cause the lining of your nose to swell, making it hard to breathe.
Decongestants work by constricting blood vessels, so that less blood flows to the swollen tissue. Without that blood, the swollen tissue shrinks, and it becomes easier to breathe.
Cough suppressants and expectorants
There are two types of cough medicine available over-the-counter: cough suppressants and expectorants. Cough suppressants (antitussives) prevent you from coughing by blocking your cough reflex. Expectorants work by thinning out the mucus in your airway, making it easier to cough up.
Cough suppressants are better suited for dry nighttime coughs, because they prevent your cough reflex from being triggered while you sleep.
Make an appointment with a doctor if your cough lasts longer than two months or if it gets worse over time. See a doctor right away if you have any of the following:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- coughing up blood
- unexplained weight loss
A dry cough that keeps you up at night can be exhausting, but it usually isn’t a sign of anything serious. Most dry coughs are lingering symptoms of colds and flus, but there are a few other possible causes.
You can try treating your nighttime cough with home remedies or OTC medications, but if it doesn’t go away after a few weeks, make an appointment with a doctor.