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.
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.
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