Constant coughing keeps me up at night

Originally Published: March 14, 2003 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: February 11, 2013
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Dear Alice,

What can you do to stop a persistent cough so you can sleep?

Dear Reader,

Coughing is the body's response to an irritant, an attempt to rid the body of that irritant, or an effort to open up blocked airways. The most common causes of cough are smoking, colds, sinus infections, bronchitis, allergies, and asthma. However, a number of less common, but more serious, kinds of conditions can also cause coughing. These include pneumonia, exposure to toxic substances, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or emphysema), heart problems, acid reflux from the stomach, and lung cancer.

How to treat a cough will depend upon its cause. Here are some things that health care providers might recommend.

If a cough is from

Suggestion

a common cold

a decongestant to cut down on post-nasal drip

allergies

antihistamine medications and/or removal of cause(s) of allergic reaction: feather pillows, pet hair, dust, etc.

sinus infection, bronchitis, pneumonia

antibiotics

asthma

an inhaled medication to help open up breathing passages

Persistent coughs compromise a good night's sleep. Figuring out what is causing all that coughing will often require a visit to a health care provider.

Cough medicines may be helpful. However, because there are many of them on the market, it's important to know what is causing the cough in order to choose a cough medicine that contains the right ingredients. Dextromethorphan is an ingredient that helps suppress coughs, thus helping you sleep, but it's not appropriate for people with asthma. Codeine is also very good at suppressing a cough, but it's available only by prescription and it's habit-forming. Guaifenesin is an ingredient that helps liquefy mucus, allowing it to be coughed up. This may help during the day, but it won't help you sleep. A health care provider can help guide the choice of the right kind of preparation to treat a cough based on your symptoms and diagnosis. An important note, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that children under two years of age should not be given cough medicine.

Some general things that can help quiet a cough include:

  • keeping the bedroom humidified (using a cold-air vaporizer, for example)
  • drinking lots of fluids — enough to keep urine colorless and odorless — to help liquefy the mucus, making it easier to cough up
  • drinking hot liquids or eating soup
  • sucking on cough drops or hard candy to soothe a tickly throat (maybe before you try sleeping)
  • propping up on pillows or sleeping on 2 or 3 pillows to help ease post-nasal drip, thus minimizing the need to clear your throat

The following symptoms usually require attention from a health care provider:

  • a cough in a young baby (especially under 3 months of age)
  • a cough that lasts more than ten days
  • sudden, violent coughing
  • whistling, high-pitched, or wheezing sounds with breathing and coughing
  • fever with the cough
  • a cough that brings up thick, green, yellow, rusty-looking, or foul smelling mucus
  • unintentional weight loss
  • awakening at night, drenched in sweat with the cough

Symptoms that indicate it's probably time for a trip to the nearest emergency room include:

  • a cough that brings up blood
  • shortness of breath, difficulty breathing with our without a cough
  • chest pain with or without a cough, especially if also associated with breathing difficulty

If the person with a cough is a baby or child, it's particularly important to consult a health care provider before giving any medicines. And if you have chronic symptoms, it may be a good idea to visit your health care provider to rule out any underlying medical concerns. Best wishes for restful nights,

Alice