There’s nothing worse than being left with the world’s most persistent cough after a bad cold. You know, the one that disappears during the day, then rears its incredibly annoying head as soon as you hit the hay.
Not only is it painful, it also disrupts your sleep when you keep waking up in a coughing fit. So why does it get so much worse at night?
There are several reasons, explains Dr Naveen Puri, lead physician from Bupa Health Clinics. Firstly, when we’re standing or sitting upright in the day, gravity moves mucus around the body. But when we lie down it can pool together, often around the throat, triggering a cough as a means to move the mucus out.
People with stuffed-up sinuses might also find they’re coughing more at night because of a “postnasal drip”, says Dr Andrew Thornber, chief medical officer at Now Patient. This is where mucus trickles down the back of your nose to your throat and causes you to cough.
Coughing more at night could be linked to asthma, which can get worse when you go to bed. If this is the case, it’s likely you’ll feel short of breath and be wheezing, says Dr Puri. “While some people with asthma say sitting up in bed alleviates coughing, it’s best to see a doctor as they’ll be able to check you over properly and offer inhalers to treat and prevent the symptoms.”
Alternatively, your cough could simply be caused by dry air, as Anshu Kaura, a LloydsPharmacy pharmacist, explains. The air is drier in the winter, due to cold air not being able to hold as much moisture as warmer air, he says. “Consequently, this dry air can further aggravate your throat, and make your nighttime cough worse.” Not ideal.
What can you do about it?
Your plan of attack should depend on what is likely to be causing your nighttime coughing. If mucus is the issue, which is common, Dr Thornber recommends drinking lots of water throughout the day, to make the mucus “thinner” and reduce dryness in your throat.
Having a hot bath or shower before bed may also help clear your airways, he says, or you could try a drink of hot honey and lemon, which can be as effective as cough medicine for soothing the throat. Both Thornber and Kaura also recommend sucking on a throat lozenge before bed to try and loosen any mucus.
Over-the-counter cough medicines may help with tickly or dry coughs, says Dr Puri. “These will not stop your cough, but will help you cough less,” the NHS states.
If the air in your room is dry, try a humidifier, which can put moisture back into the air and make it easier to breathe. Kaura recommends the JML Chillmax air cooler, which costs £39.99. If you don’t want to spend any money, leave your window slightly ajar to let fresh air in.
For those with sinus issues, using a nasal saltwater rinse – which you can buy or make at home yourself – before bed might help clear the sinuses and any offending mucus.
And lastly, focus on your bedtime environment. Propping yourself up with a few pillows can help, as can making sure you have clean bedding – dust or mites could be making your cough worse.
Ultimately, if your cough lasts for more than three weeks, the NHS advises you to see your GP so they can investigate further. And if you start to feel unwell with a cough, experience chest pain, struggle to breathe or start coughing up blood, book an urgent appointment or call NHS 111.