Soothe a Nighttime Cough

Medically Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on June 05, 2016
3 min read

When a cough keeps you awake, you want to get your sleep back on track as soon as possible.

Start by doing these five things:

  1. Shift your sleeping position. Propping yourself up may quiet your cough long enough to help you fall asleep. "Some people do well with a couple of pillows or sleeping in a recliner chair," says Brent A. Senior, MD, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. "Try it for a couple of nights; it might be worthwhile."
  1. Drink tea. Hot drinks can soothe a cough. "If somebody feels that the air is dry, they could certainly try moistening their upper tract with hot tea, lemon juice, and honey," says Molly Cooke, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. Avoid caffeinated teas, which can keep you awake.
  1. Avoid moving air. If a ceiling fan, heater, or air conditioner blows toward your face while you're lying in bed, change that. Senior says his patients often say their coughing is worse when any air blows on them at night.
  1. Use a humidifier. These make the air moist, which may cut down on coughing. Cool-air humidifiers do that, and there's no hot steam that might be a burn risk. Clean the humidifier so mold doesn't grow. "Make sure it doesn't have water in it that's been sitting there forever," Cooke says.
  1. Suck on a lozenge. Some cough drops use a numbing ingredient, such as benzocaine, which can calm down a cough long enough to help you fall asleep, Senior says.

There are many reasons you could be coughing. "Cough is a really common symptom," Senior says.

If you have a cold, it could be postnasal drip. A decongestant may help.

If you're coughing up mucus, you may have an infection like bronchitis, whooping cough, or pneumonia. So if you’re not getting better within a week, visit your doctor. Go sooner if you have a high fever plus other symptoms.

"If you're dealing with pneumonia, it's going to need medical intervention," says Aaron E. Glatt, MD, executive vice president at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, NY.

If you're pretty healthy except for your nighttime cough, you can work on your symptoms at home and then follow up with your doctor as needed.

These are some of the most common causes for a nighttime cough and what you can try:

Heartburn. If you have heartburn, lying down can cause coughing if stomach acid leaks into and up your esophagus. "A tiny amount of acid gets into the back of the throat, which causes enough irritation to cause a cough," Senior says. You could try an over-the-counter heartburn treatment first, and then see your doctor if that doesn't help.

Allergies. If you only cough at night, you may be allergic to something in your home, like dust mites. "There are dust mites in pillows and blankets," Senior says. Try washing bedding in hot water once a week, and use pillow and mattress covers. If you think you have an allergy, you could try an over-the-counter allergy medicine and see your doctor if you want an allergy test.

Asthma. If yours gets worse at night, it can make you cough. Check on your triggers. "It may be [triggered by] dust in the mattress or putting your head where the cat has been lying all day," Cooke says.

Some blood-pressure drugs.Blood pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors can cause cough in some people who take them. You could ask your doctor about whether you might try switching to another type of blood pressure drug.

Don't stop taking your medication before you talk to your doctor.

Smoking can also make you cough. If you smoke, do everything you can to quit, and ask your doctor for help. Also, avoid other people's secondhand smoke.