Coughing and Sleep Loss

For most people, a cough is just a minor annoyance, something that goes away within a couple of days. For others, however, it can linger, and coughing at night can severely disrupt sleep. Often coughing gets worse at night. Even if you manage to get to sleep, it can wake you up. So what can you do about it?

Types of Cough

Coughs can be divided into two main types: productive coughs and dry coughs. Productive coughs occur when the body is trying to expel fluid from the lungs. Dry coughs are caused by irritation of the surface of the throat. Having a productive cough for a long time can damage the throat, causing a dry cough.

Even a slight cough causes the whole body to spasm, which is why they are so hard to sleep through. Most coughs are caused by infections and some can be treated effectively with antibiotics, so if your cough persists for more than two weeks you should see a doctor. Unfortunately, some people have chronic conditions which can cause coughing over a period of years, often leading to chronic insomnia.


Most coughs can be cured by ordinary over-the-counter remedies available from your local pharmacist, but you will need to make sure you get the right kind of medicine for the type of cough you have. Lemsip and similar drinks can be used during the day. Make sure to check that it’s safe to take different medicines together.

A lasting cough often causes the lining of the throat to swell, making it hard to breathe when you lie down to sleep. If you have an asthma inhaler you may find it helps to reduce this, even if you are not wheezing. Taking aspirin or ibuprofen about fifteen minutes before you go to bed can also be effective.

If you have an ongoing problem, you doctor may prescribe codeine to reduce the pain and hence take away the trigger for a dry cough; it also helps to make some people sleepy. This can be addictive so it’s unwise to use it for prolonged periods. If you already have opiate-based painkillers for another condition, don’t use them for a cough without your doctor’s advice, as they may make it harder to breathe at night.

Natural Remedies

If you don’t like taking pharmaceutical remedies or you want to supplement them with something to boost their effects, there are lots of natural remedies you can try. Hot water mixed with lemon juice and a spoonful of honey will help to soothe your throat during the day. This should be avoided at night, however, as sugars can feed bacteria in your throat, prolonging an infection. Whisky and other spirits can also be soothing but if drunk at night can cause the throat to dehydrate.

A simple way to take down swelling before you go to bed is to gargle with hot salty water. Prepare a mug of water as hot as you can comfortably tolerate and stir in three level teaspoonfuls of salt. Two to four minutes of gargling should leave your throat feeling much improved.

Cold water next to your bed can help to stop a coughing fit that wakes you up. Try keeping an ordinary biro beside your bed and sucking on the smooth end. This will help produce saliva to lubricate your throat, but, unlike a cough sweet, it’s unlikely to cause choking if you fall asleep again in the process.

Sleeping Position

Productive coughs often get worse during sleep because mucus builds up in the throat due to the horizontal position of the body. The cough is the body’s way of trying to get rid of it, to stop you drowning. Lying on your side, rather than your back, may help. Alternatively, you may find that it helps to sleep propped up on extra pillows so that fluid can drain away naturally.

If you wake up coughing, don’t just lie there and try to get back to sleep immediately. It’s usually better to prop yourself upright for a while and let your throat and lungs drain.

Sleep Environment

Dry coughs are often exacerbated by a dry sleep environment. Using a humidifier in your bedroom overnight can make a big difference. If you add a couple of drops of menthol, it can also work to soothe a productive cough. Alternatively, you can heat menthol in an oil burner, but remember that this should not be left on whilst you sleep.

As dust can make a cough much worse, it’s important to keep your bedroom extra clean at such times. Following these basic guidelines should make your cough far less troubling and may even speed up the process of getting rid of it altogether.