During sleep, your body is paralyzed much of the time so coughing mid-slumber can be a sign something is wrong. We’re going to get to the bottom of coughing during sleep and figure out just how rare it is, and what to do if it occurs.
Coughing During Sleep: Physical Possibility
Sleep exists in four stages, two light and two deep. During the deep stages (deep and REM sleep), your body grows still, and everything except the eyes and breathing muscles are paralyzed.
The paralysis is to stop you from acting out your dreams, keeping you safe throughout the night, and effectively stops your ability to cough or do anything that isn’t regular breathing.
You can, however, cough during light sleep. While your body is still, it’s not paralyzed—if you have a cough by day, you can have a cough during this part of the night.
Unfortunately, there are certain types of cough, along with sleep conditions, that may have you coughing during the deeper stages of sleep too.
Coughing During Sleep: Main Causes
There are two main contributors to coughing at night, with two others that crop up alongside. Although, even with a chronic cough accompanying these conditions, experts have concluded that only half of sleep disruptions have the cough as the cause.
This is the most common reason for coughing during sleep. A chronic cough can slip past the body’s defenses and occur during deep and REM sleep.
Be aware that chronic cough isn’t a lifelong condition and is entirely treatable once you target its cause. Some of these causes include:
- Acid reflux.
- Post nasal drip.
Be sure to get this condition treated quickly, not only for the sake of your sleep. If you let the cough grow too severe you may end up fracturing a rib or dealing with vomiting and lightheadedness.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is one of three forms of sleep apnea, and is the most dangerous of the lot. Here you don’t actually have a cough—the reason you cough is that you can’t breathe.
With obstructive sleep apnea, you stop breathing during sleep thanks to soft tissue or the tongue blocking off your airway in the back of your throat. Coughing will get you back on the right track, breathing normally again.
This condition can get serious quickly if you stop breathing for too long; if you think you have it, you should get it checked immediately.
Obstructive sleep apnea is often accompanied by GERD and Rhinitis, especially in women. You need to treat all three if you have them for the best results.
GERD has nothing to do with the respiratory system—instead, it impacts the esophageal sphincter. This area keeps your throat clear of stomach acid, most of the time.
When you have GERD, this sphincter is weaker leading to frequent acid reflux.
Your body may react to this reflux by coughing, trying to clear the throat even in sleep.
Rhinitis impacts your nose, causing swelling, sneezing and a runny nose. As you’re not upright in sleep, this runny residue may go down your throat instead and cause coughing in sleep.
This condition is usually temporary, coming with a cold or similar illness, and allergies.
Coughing During Sleep: Is It Dangerous?
While coughing in sleep isn’t dangerous, it’s not a good sign. Healthy people don’t cough when they’re sleeping — your body prevents coughing by decreasing the sensitivity of your reflex. While scientists don’t yet know why this is, they still know that coughing in sleep is far from a good sign.
In fact, it’s a signal that something deeper and potentially sinister is awry. As you’re paralyzed, an irritant must be present to initiate the coughing.
Not all irritants are bad; for example, if something triggers a sneeze, but coughing requires a diagnosis and treatment. While it may not disrupt your sleep to the point of waking, whatever is wrong can plague your waking hours and grow into something more serious as time goes on.
How To Improve Coughing During Sleep?
It may sound scary, knowing something is wrong that you need to get diagnosed and treated. Don’t worry—the treatments are simple and highly effective. We’ll go through some of the most common ones now to hopefully put your mind at ease.
Sometimes it’s a cause as simple as an infection that’s behind your cough. Some antibiotics solve this swiftly, letting you sleep soundly again soon.
There are three main medications used for alleviating the allergies behind a postnasal drip—aka when a runny nose drips down the back of your throat.
As allergies are so common, these are commonly available treatments and some may be available over the counter.
If you have GERD, you can use acid blockers to keep your stomach acid under control. A doctor can prescribe this, no problem.
In more severe cases you may need surgery to rectify the issue—so, it’s best to address this as quickly as you can.
Inclined sleeping can alleviate post nasal drip as well as acid reflux, along with other throat obstructions. It ensures there’s no weight on your throat area, as well as puts your nose in the right position to run outwardly.
You can use a wedge pillow for sleeping at an incline, or you could fashion something yourself out of pillows you have at home.
If this is a long-term issue, adjustable beds work best and most reliably for inclined sleeping.
CPAP Therapy stands for continuous positive airway pressure therapy. This isn’t as simple as the methods above, instead, it’s a machine that keeps your airways open.
These machines are sometimes used to treat sleep apnea and chronic snoring, but they can also work for a chronic cough.
How To Sleep Better While Sick?
Different illnesses can cause the issues above, from something as small as a cold to a more serious condition with a chronic cough. While treatment can help deal with coughing in your sleep, there are ways to make sleeping while sick in general a more pleasant experience. See the video below for tips.
Can you cough in your sleep? Yes, but generally it’s neither normal nor healthy. If you find yourself coughing in your sleep, get checked out for:
- Chronic cough causing conditions.
- Obstructive sleep apnea.
If you have any comments or questions, leave them below, and be sure to consult a doctor if you’re worried you may have one of the conditions above.