How to Sleep with a Cough


A nagging cough can make it really difficult to fall asleep at night. If you can manage to get rid of the cough, your problem will likely be solved. However, if you have a cough that simply refuses to be suppressed, there are measures you can take—like keeping your breathing passages moist, elevating your head, and creating a good sleep environment—that can help you overcome the hacking and get some decent shut-eye.

Part 1
Hydrating Your Breathing Passages

Hydrating Your Breathing Passages on How to Sleep with a Cough

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Dry breathing passages get irritated more easily, which results in more frequent and/or more powerful coughing. Drinking water throughout the day to keep your body hydrated will help your throat and nasal tissue to stay moist during the night.[1] Take extra care to stay hydrated if you are also experiencing a fever, diarrhea, or vomiting, since these all dehydrate your body. It’s best to spread out your water consumption throughout the day rather than to have 1 or 2 big glasses of water right before bed—otherwise you’ll probably have to get up to use the bathroom! Drink warm or hot water to help hydrate your body and loosen up the mucus in your lungs for a speedier recovery.

Hydrating Your Breathing Passages on How to Sleep with a Cough

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Steam helps to soothe irritated tissue and open and moisturize your breathing passages. This means you’ll breathe more easily as you head off to bed, and may cough less frequently as well.[2] A warm bath or shower can also be a calming ritual that helps prepare your body for rest. Try making it part of your nightly routine that tells your body it’s time to sleep!

Hydrating Your Breathing Passages on How to Sleep with a Cough

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Like the steam from a bath or shower, a steaming-hot cup of tea will help moisturize, expand, and soothe your breathing passages. Choose an herbal or decaf tea, since caffeine makes it harder to fall asleep.[3] A nice cup of tea can also be mentally calming before bedtime. Honey coats and soothes your breathing passages, and has antibacterial properties that may be beneficial as well.[4]

Hydrating Your Breathing Passages on How to Sleep with a Cough

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The humidifier adds moisture to the surrounding air, which will in turn hydrate your nasal tissue and throat as you breathe. Even when you don’t have a cough, you’ll probably find it easier to sleep if the air is moister.[5] For most people, a relative humidity level of about 50% is ideal for sleeping. So, you’re more likely to need a humidifier on a winter night than a sticky summer evening.[6] Make sure you clean your humidifier properly and regularly to prevent bacteria buildup. Otherwise, it may cause a cough (and illness) instead of helping with it!

Part 2
Improving Your Sleep Environment

Improving Your Sleep Environment on How to Sleep with a Cough

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When you lie down, mucus tends to build up in the back of your throat, contributing to the “tickle” that makes you cough in order to clear the airway. If you prop your head up higher than normal with additional pillows, more of this mucus will drain down into your stomach instead of collecting in your throat.[7] Stack the pillows so that your neck and upper body are supported as well, instead of leaving your neck bent at an awkward angle. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a stiff neck and a cough, which isn’t a fun combination!

Improving Your Sleep Environment on How to Sleep with a Cough

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The more inviting your bedroom is for sleeping, the easier it will be for you to fall and remain asleep, even with a cough. Use blinds and curtains to keep the room dark, set the temperature so it’s comfortably cool, use a good-quality mattress and pillow and comfy linens, and remove or block out any distracting noises. For most people, the ideal temperature for sleeping is 60–65 °F (16–18 °C).[8]

Improving Your Sleep Environment on How to Sleep with a Cough

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Following the same routine every night signals your body that it’s time to sleep, and can help you overcome the distraction of a stubborn cough. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, and follow the same schedule—for instance, warm bath, hot tea and some reading, meditation, and lights out—every night. You should avoid caffeine and vigorous exercise for several hours before bedtime, and cut off “screen time”—watching TV, checking your phone, using your laptop, etc.—at least an hour before bedtime.

Improving Your Sleep Environment on How to Sleep with a Cough

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Lie comfortably, close your eyes, and start breathing deeply and slowly. Take notice of each breath. If you need more help, picture a calming image that brings you peace and serenity. Give yourself 15-30 minutes to fall asleep with these techniques.[9] Coughing can interrupt your deep breathing and make it hard to maintain your focus. Do your best to ignore the coughing and maintain your relaxation. If you're still awake after 15-30 minutes, move on to another method--namely, getting up briefly and trying over again. Try following a guided sleep meditation to get into a relaxing mindset.

Improving Your Sleep Environment on How to Sleep with a Cough

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If you’re tossing and turning because of your cough, it’s usually better to get up briefly and restart your process of falling asleep. Get up for 15-30 minutes and do something calm, like listen to soft jazz or meditate while you drink some herbal tea with honey. Then, climb back into bed and see if you’re able to doze off.[10] Give yourself about 30 minutes to fall asleep. If you still can’t, repeat the process of getting up briefly and trying again. Eventually, your body will give in and you’ll head off to dreamland!

Part 3
Suppressing and Treating Your Cough

Suppressing and Treating Your Cough on How to Sleep with a Cough

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There is a growing body of evidence that honey is just as effective of a cough suppressant as common over-the-counter medications. Try swallowing about 2 tsp (10 g) of honey right before you go to bed, even if you’ve already had some honey in your nightly herbal tea.[11] Honey coats and soothes irritated breathing passages, and it has potentially beneficial antibacterial properties. Honey appears to be particularly useful for kids age 1-5, who should not be given cough-suppressing medications. Children under age 1 should not be given honey, however, due to the risk of botulism. You can also try sucking on a cough drop right before you sleep for similar effects.

Suppressing and Treating Your Cough on How to Sleep with a Cough

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If you have only a cough, for instance, take a medication that is only a cough suppressant. You should always try to avoid taking medications that address symptoms you don’t have.[12] There are 2 main types of over-the-counter cough medications: antitussives (cough suppressants), such as dextromethorphan (Robitussin, for example); and expectorants (to help clear mucus), such as guaifenesin (Mucinex, for example).[13] Many medications have a combination of active ingredients that include cough suppressants, antitussives, fever reducers, and painkillers. Look for a medication that fully encompasses the symptoms you’re feeling. Over-the-counter medications aren’t safe for everyone. People with high blood pressure, for example, must be careful when choosing cold medicines and should avoid oral decongestants that contain phenylephrine. It’s never a bad idea to consult your doctor or pharmacist before choosing or using medication. Take the medication exactly as directed on the package, or by your doctor.

Suppressing and Treating Your Cough on How to Sleep with a Cough

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If you have a persistent cough that lasts for more than 1-2 weeks, it’s always advisable to talk to your doctor. If this long-term cough tends to get worse at night and affects your sleep, you should also discuss getting tested for sleep apnea.[14] People with sleep apnea can have episodes in which they stop breathing for brief periods during sleep. This condition can be fatal if left untreated, but treatments like using a CPAP mask while sleeping can be very effective. Using a CPAP mask also tends to suppress nighttime coughing that’s connected to sleep apnea.[15] Your doctor may advise that you undergo a sleep study as part of your testing for sleep apnea.

Suppressing and Treating Your Cough on How to Sleep with a Cough

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Especially if you have a persistent, mucus-heavy cough, you may wake up suddenly from sleep feeling like you’re suffocating. This, in turn, can cause a fear of falling asleep, which leads some people to go to great lengths to stay awake at night. Talk to your doctor right away if your nighttime cough is having this type of impact on you.[16] In some cases, the combination of a mucus-heavy cough at night and a fear of sleeping can indicate a condition like whooping cough that may be missed otherwise.