Home / Frequently Asked Questions About Sleep / How to Sleep With a Cough or a Cold

How to Sleep With a Cough or a Cold

Written by

Danielle Pacheco

author

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Nilong Vyas

author
Fact Checked

Medical Disclaimer: The content on this page should not be taken as medical advice or used as a recommendation for any specific medication. Always consult your doctor before taking any new medication or changing your current dosage.

Each year, up to 30 million doctor’s visits occur to address coughing. Many people also likely experience coughing without seeking treatment, as it is a symptom of both the common cold and the flu. When you have a cough, you might notice it interfering with your sleep. Thankfully, there are actions you can take to help yourself obtain the sleep you need to feel better.

Why Do I Cough More at Night When I’m Sick?

People may experience coughing at night — called a nocturnal cough — for multiple reasons. Our bodies naturally cough to protect us by removing mucus and foreign objects from the windpipe, voice box, and lungs. Generally, coughing serves the same function whether it happens at night or during the daytime.

When you are sick, your cough might worsen at night due to postnasal drip. Postnasal drip refers to secretions that run down the back of the throat instead of coming out of the nose. This symptom often accompanies a cold, as well as the flu, allergies, and sinus infections. Lying on your back can worsen postnasal drip, which may be why you notice worse coughing at night.

Can You Sleep Off a Cold?

Medical professionals have not yet found a cure to the common cold, but they recommend obtaining plenty of rest as you recover. Sleep and the immune system are closely linked, so receiving adequate sleep generally promotes healing. Research suggests sleep improves immunity because of its effects on hormones in the body and the inflammation response.

Sleeping enough before you fall ill could be the best way to avoid the common cold. Healthy adults should sleep for seven or more hours each night.

Research shows that people who are sleep deprived in the week before being exposed to the cold virus are more likely to develop symptoms than people who receive adequate sleep. Studies suggest that those who sleep less than five hours per night are more than twice as likely to become symptomatic than those who sleep more than seven hours per night. Those who sleep less than seven hours per night are almost three times more likely to develop a cold than those who sleep at least eight hours.

How Does a Cold Affect Your Sleep?

Over 40% of people report that sleeping more than normal  helps as they deal with a cold, yet it is natural to have trouble sleeping when you have a cold. In a survey conducted across several countries, 46% of people reported that having a cold or the flu disrupts their ability to receive good sleep. Additionally, 94% reported that when sick with a cold or flu, symptoms wake them up at night.

Although a cough is the symptom that is most likely to wake you up at night when you have a cold, other cold symptoms such as aches and pains, a sore throat, runny nose, and the need to sneeze might also disturb your sleep. People experiencing a fever may have fever dreams. These unusual, negative dreams could also make sleeping more difficult while you are sick.

    How to Sleep With a Cough or Cold

    Although you may not succeed in entirely eliminating your symptoms overnight, there are some habits that may help you enjoy more restorative sleep as you recover. If your cough is made worse by asthma, seasonal allergies, or other conditions, you may also need to treat these conditions to help relieve your cough.

    Consume Honey

    Before reaching for cold medication, experts recommend parents give children over 12 months of age honey as a safer treatment for upper respiratory infections like the cold. For non-infant children, consuming honey before bedtime has been shown to reduce how often and how severely a child coughs at night. Children and parents alike may enjoy improved sleep when a sick child takes honey before sleeping.

    Researchers focus their honey studies on children in particular because over-the-counter cough medicines pose more risks to children than they do to adults, so finding an alternative treatment is more important for this age group. However, adults can also try honey to treat a cough. Honey is known to have multiple protective effects, including being antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial.

    Try Cough Medicine

    Although many people naturally reach for cough medicine when they are experiencing a cold-related cough, research studies demonstrate mixed results when it comes to the effectiveness of cough medicines. Many studies have found that cough medicines do not provide any more of a benefit than a placebo does, and many cough medicines are associated with unpleasant side effects.

    As part of the body’s immune response, coughing serves a purpose. Some medical experts caution that overusing medication that suppresses coughing could impact how long a person takes to recover from their illness.

    Cough medicine is commonly available over-the-counter. If you find that cough medicine helps you sleep, then it may be worthwhile to use it in moderation, keeping in mind the potential side effects. For a dry cough, a lozenge may be sufficient to calm the cough reflex so you can fall asleep.

    Try a Nasal Decongestant

    Nasal decongestants contain substances that target the blood vessels in order to open up the nasal passages and decrease postnasal drip, which indirectly helps reduce coughing at night. Most nasal decongestants are available over-the-counter in the form of tablets, drops, or nasal sprays.

    Like cough medicine research, studies on using nasal decongestants to treat the common cold have produced mixed results. Although they may work for some people, they can also bring side effects such as high blood pressure, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and insomnia. They should not be used for longer than five days, and they should not be used by children younger than six years old.

    Drink a Warm Liquid

    Hot tea and chicken soup are popular home remedies often said to relieve cold symptoms, though the effect of hot liquids on a cold has not been widely studied. One study from the 1970s found that ingesting hot liquids, such as hot water or chicken soup, reduced nasal congestion.

    A more recent study found that a hot drink did not have any objective effect on the ability to breathe easily through the nose, but it did lead to people reporting that they could breathe more easily. Both a hot drink and the same drink at room temperature helped improve runny noses, sneezing, and coughs. Additionally, people who drank the hot drink reported that they felt less chilly and tired, and their throats were not as sore. The researchers concluded that a hot drink may help relieve cold and flu symptoms through a combination of the placebo effect and the drink’s ability to clear out nasal congestion.

    Having a warm cup of tea or bowl of soup in the evening when you are feeling under the weather is worth a try. Even if the positive effects you experience are a placebo, they could temporarily help you feel better and experience improved sleep.

    Elevate Your Head and Neck

    Coughs related to postnasal drip can become a greater problem once a person lies down, due to gravity. If your cough seems to worsen once you lie flat, try propping up your head and neck. Use a wedge pillow or multiple bed pillows to make yourself comfortable while lying in a position that keeps your head elevated above the rest of your body. While this may help adults, it is not a recommended therapy for young children.

    Use a Humidifier

    Some studies have found that higher humidity levels are more favorable for clearing the nasal passages, though other studies have found a lack of evidence on whether using a humidifier affects nasal symptoms.

    If your bedroom is excessively dry, you may want to consider investing in a humidifier to keep humidity levels between the recommended 30% to 50%. Keeping humidity levels above 40% also makes the influenza virus less infectious, which may help protect others in your household. That said, a house that is too humid can also aggravate airway symptoms for some people, so it is best to stay within the recommended limits.

    If you do choose to use a humidifier, it is important to clean it regularly and only use distilled water.

    When to Talk to Your Doctor

    The common cold and its associated symptoms, such as a cough, typically last for about seven to 10 days. If your cough or cold symptoms persist beyond this timeframe or feel particularly severe, make an appointment with your doctor. Although many people recover from a cold easily, those with a compromised immune system or certain illnesses are at risk of the cold developing into a more serious infection, such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

    • Was this article helpful?
    • YesNo

    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Danielle Pacheco

    Staff Writer

    Danielle writes in-depth articles about sleep solutions and holds a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia.

    author
    Dr. Nilong Vyas

    Pediatrician

    MD

    Dr. Vyas is a pediatrician and founder of Sleepless in NOLA. She specializes in helping parents establish healthy sleep habits for children.

    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Danielle Pacheco

    Staff Writer

    Danielle writes in-depth articles about sleep solutions and holds a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia.

    author
    Dr. Nilong Vyas

    Pediatrician

    MD

    Dr. Vyas is a pediatrician and founder of Sleepless in NOLA. She specializes in helping parents establish healthy sleep habits for children.

    • References

      +21 Sources
      1. 1. Sharma, S., Hashmi, M. F., & Alhajjaj, M. S. (2021, May 19). Cough. In StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved August 9, 2021, fromhttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29630273/
      2. 2. National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases, Division of Viral Diseases. (2020, October 7). Common colds: Protect yourself and others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved August 9, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html
      3. 3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). (2021, April 12). Flu symptoms & complications. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved August 9, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm
      4. 4. Singh, D. P., Jamil, R. T., & Mahajan, K. (2021, June 15). Nocturnal cough. In StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved August 9, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30335306/
      5. 5. A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. (2019, July 11). Runny and stuffy nose. MedlinePlus. Retrieved August 9, 2021, fromhttps://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/19674.htm
      6. 6. Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Haack, M. (2019). The sleep-immune crosstalk in health and disease. Physiological Reviews, 99(3), 1325–1380. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30920354/
      7. 7. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Population Health. (2017, March 2). How much sleep do I need? Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved August 9, 2021, fromhttps://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html
      8. 8. Prather, A. A., Janicki-Deverts, D., Hall, M. H., & Cohen, S. (2015). Behaviorally assessed sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. Sleep, 38(9), 1353–1359. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26118561/
      9. 9. Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Alper, C. M., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Turner, R. B. (2009). Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(1), 62–67.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19139325/
      10. 10. Phillipson, G., Aspley, S., & Fietze, I. (2020). Perceptions of the importance of sleep in common cold—Two online questionnaire-based surveys. SN Comprehensive Clinical Medicine, 2, 596–605. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42399-020-00265-5
      11. 11. Schredl, M., & Erlacher, D. (2020). Fever dreams: An online study. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 53. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32047464/
      12. 12. Cohen, H. A., Rozen, J., Kristal, H., Laks, Y., Berkovitch, M., Uziel, Y., Kozer, E., Pomeranz, A., & Efrat, H. (2012). Effect of honey on nocturnal cough and sleep quality: A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Pediatrics, 130(3), 465–471. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22869830/
      13. 13. Ahmed, S., Sulaiman, S. A., Baig, A. A., Ibrahim, M., Liaqat, S., Fatima, S., Jabeen, S., Shamim, N., & Othman, N. H. (2018). Honey as a potential natural antioxidant medicine: An insight into its molecular mechanisms of action. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2018, 8367846. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29492183/
      14. 14. Smith, S. M., Schroeder, K., & Fahey, T. (2014). Over-the-counter (OTC) medications for acute cough in children and adults in community settings. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2014(11), CD001831.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25420096/
      15. 15. Deckx, L., De Sutter, A. I., Guo, L., Mir, N. A., & van Driel, M. L. (2016). Nasal decongestants in monotherapy for the common cold. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 10(10), CD009612. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27748955/
      16. 16. Saketkhoo, K., Januszkiewicz, A., & Sackner, M. A. (1978). Effects of drinking hot water, cold water, and chicken soup on nasal mucus velocity and nasal airflow resistance. Chest, 74(4), 408–410. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/359266/
      17. 17. Sanu, A., & Eccles, R. (2008). The effects of a hot drink on nasal airflow and symptoms of common cold and flu. Rhinology, 46(4), 271-275. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19145994/
      18. 18. Pieterse, A., & Hanekom, S. D. (2018). Criteria for enhancing mucus transport: A systematic scoping review. Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine, 13, 22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29988934/
      19. 19. Mold Course Chapter 2: (n.d.). US EPA. Retrieved August 11, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/mold/mold-course-chapter-2
      20. 20. Noti, J. D., Blachere, F. M., McMillen, C. M., Lindsley, W. G., Kashon, M. L., Slaughter, D. R., & Beezhold, D. H. (2013). High humidity leads to loss of infectious influenza virus from simulated coughs. PloS One, 8(2), e57485. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23460865/
      21. 21. Khosravi, M., Collins, P. B., Lin, R. L., Hayes, D., Jr, Smith, J. A., & Lee, L. Y. (2014). Breathing hot humid air induces airway irritation and cough in patients with allergic rhinitis. Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology, 198, 13–19.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24709444/