Coughs and colds can range from mildly irritating to painful and drawn-out, and most of us suffer two or more per year. Experts agree that one of the best ways to help your body to recover is rest. But what happens if every time you lie down to sleep your cough kicks into overdrive and you find yourself coughing when you're trying to drift off, or waking up in the night?
Change your position
One of the functions of a cough is to remove mucus from our airways. Unfortunately, once we're lying down, it makes it more likely that mucus will begin to collect in the back of the throat, meaning that we cough to clear the blockage.
The good news is that minor adjustments to our sleeping position can be very helpful. Try propping your mattress up slightly at the head end and let gravity do its work.
"The cough may also be due to acid reflux, where acid doesn't stay in your stomach but comes up to the oesophagus," explains GP Dr Toni Hazell. "It is worse lying flat as you don't have the help of gravity to keep the acid down, and so is worse at night. In addition, if you suffer from asthma, this might cause a night cough."
Combat dry air
Colder air tends to lack humidity, and whilst central heating might deal with the chill, it doesn't add moisture to the air. This means that the air in your house may become dry during winter, irritating your nose and throat. As well as exacerbating a cough, dry air can irritate the skin and even cause static electricity in your clothing!
To counter dry air in the home, you can invest in a humidifier if you're feeling flush. But a low-cost option is simply to place bowls of water around the home, particularly near radiators. The water will evaporate, adding moisture to the air.
Do some of the work
Whilst your cough may be driving you mad, it's actually on your side. In keeping your airways clear by breaking up mucus, a productive cough could set you on the road to recovery.
The good news is that you can help to reduce coughing by taking on some of the work yourself. Make sure you blow your nose regularly rather than sniff, and try inhaling steam by placing hot water in a bowl or inhalator. There's limited evidence steam makes a difference, although it's safe (as long as you're careful to avoid getting too close to get burnt in any way) and some people do find it helps. Getting that mucus to shift is one of the ways to reduce your need to cough.
Manage your allergies
If you suffer from allergies, it may be that the problem is in your bedding. Make sure you change your bedding regularly to minimise potential irritants such as dead skin cells and other nasties. Choose a pillow that is hypoallergenic and make sure you wash your bedding in a product suitable for allergy sufferers.
If your allergies are severe, it might be worth swapping your bedroom carpet for laminate flooring to ensure there are fewer places for dust and other debris to hide. Make sure you take any prescribed medication for your allergies and see your doctor if you feel that you might need to review any treatment.
Future-proof your night
Whilst you may not be able to eliminate night-time coughing altogether, it's important that you minimise your risk by staying well hydrated. Having a hot, non-caffeinated drink before bed can help to soothe your throat and make you less prone to coughing when you begin to rest. Ginger tea is said to have anti-inflammatory properties, so may be a good choice; and some swear by adding a teaspoon of honey to their brew.
Visit your pharmacist
"If you have a simple cold then the best place to go is the pharmacy - there are all sorts of things you can buy over the counter, from antipyretics (to reduce a fever), decongestants, and sprays to soothe a sore throat to cough mixtures," explains Hazell. "Simple honey and lemon used at home can also be very effective to soothe a tickly or dry cough. Honey and lemon is actually official NHS advice!"
When should I see a doctor?
It's common to suffer from a cough or cold from time to time, and most of the symptoms won't warrant a trip to the doctor. But there are times when a cough might start to become a concern.
"A cold will often last 2-3 weeks. In an otherwise healthy adult with a cough, sore throat, runny nose and achiness, I would usually then work on the basis that it's a viral infection and advise them on over-the-counter medicines.
"However, it's important to see a doctor if you have a chronic heart or lung condition; or any medical conditions/medications that impair the immune system," explains Hazell. "Similarly, if you develop a very high temperature (40°+), are becoming dehydrated or delirious, are coughing up blood or increasing amounts of green phlegm, or if your symptoms get drastically worse or do not settle over 2-3 weeks, it's time to contact the doctor."
The good news is that most coughs will go away on their own within a week or so. And taking steps to manage your symptoms - particularly at night - should help you get the rest you need.
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