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When to Worry About a Cough: Recognizing Serious Symptoms

You find yourself lying in bed, feeling miserable and desperate for a good night’s sleep. But as soon as you close your eyes, a coughing fit shakes your body and leaves you gasping for air. The coughing persists throughout the night, keeping you awake and preventing your body from getting the rest it needs to heal. It’s a frustrating and exhausting cycle, but there are steps you can take to help relieve your nighttime cough.

According to family medicine physician Elizabeth Rainbolt, MD, a cough can be caused by a wide range of factors, including cold or flu, bronchitis or pneumonia, whooping cough, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), asthma, allergies, sleep apnea, smoking, and certain medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), beta-blockers, and ACE inhibitors. Postnasal drip, which occurs when mucus runs down the back of your throat, can also cause a cough.

Regardless of the cause of your cough, it can significantly disrupt your sleep and prevent your body from healing. If you have a wet or productive cough, Dr. Rainbolt suggests using an expectorant like guaifenesin to help thin out mucus and make it easier to cough up. A cool-mist humidifier in your bedroom can also help, as it adds moisture to the air and relieves both dry and wet coughs. Drinking warm liquids like herbal tea or warm water with honey can soothe your cough and help thin out mucus. A nasal saline spray or a salt-water gargle can also be effective in thinning out secretions and reducing postnasal drip. Finally, an over-the-counter cough suppressant can help lessen the urge to cough as you sleep, allowing you to get the rest your body needs.

If you have a non-productive or dry cough, Dr. Rainbolt suggests minimizing exposure to dust and other allergens by using an air purifier and taking a shower before bed. Lozenges or cough drops can help alleviate a sore throat, while options that contain menthol can also help clear sinuses. Over-the-counter decongestants can be effective in reducing congestion caused by allergies, but it’s important to speak to your doctor before using a decongestant if you have high blood pressure.

While wet and dry coughs are the most common when dealing with colds, flu, or allergies, there are other types of coughs to be aware of, including whooping cough, which causes a distinctive “whooping” sound, barking cough, which can be a sign of croup, and wheezing cough, which can be a symptom of asthma.

Remember that if your cough persists or worsens, it may be time to see your doctor. They can help identify the underlying cause of your cough and provide treatment options to help you get the relief you need. Don’t let coughing keep you up at night – take steps to soothe your throat and get the rest your body needs to heal.