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Do People Cough or Sneeze While Sleeping?

Lara Vargas


If you’re coughing and sneezing during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, it is probably a symptom of chronic cough or obstructive sleep apnea. This condition can lead to sleep deficiency and should be treated under a physician’s care.

In this article, we will explore the reason for nighttime coughing and treatment options for persistent coughing. We will also discuss how to prevent nocturnal coughing by caring for yourself when you experience the common cold or flu.

Causes of Coughing and Sneezing During Sleep

Chronic cough and obstructive sleep apnea are the most common causes of nighttime cough. Of the people with chronic cough, only about 50 percent have sleep disruptions due to coughing.

  • Chronic cough: a cough that lasts for eight weeks or longer. It can interrupt sleep and cause daytime sleepiness. Severe cases can cause vomiting, lightheadedness, and rib fractures. The most common causes of chronic include postnasal drip, asthma, and acid reflux. Chronic coughs will disappear once the cause is treated.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): a potentially serious sleep disorder in which the breathing frequently stops and starts during sleep. While there are two other forms of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea involves a physical blockage of the airways such as the tongue or other soft tissue collapsing in the back of the throat.

Reports of nocturnal coughing often include patients suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and rhinitis on top of OSA. The majority of individuals with all three diagnoses are women.

  • GERD: a digestive disorder affecting the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is a ring of muscles the prevents stomach acid from entering the throat. GERD weakens the LES, which allows acid to slip past—this is called acid reflux.
  • Rhinitis: the inflammation and swelling of the nose’s mucous membrane usually caused by allergies or the common cold. It’s characterized by a runny nose, sneezing, and stuffiness.

Sometimes a nocturnal cough is the result of antitussive drugs—typically sedatives—because they affect the cortical nerves, so they offer less cough control at night than during the daytime.

Why Is Coughing and Sneezing During Sleep Bad?

According to the King’s College Hospital Department of Respiratory Medicine in London, sleeping decreases cough reflex sensitivity. Biological mechanisms prevent coughs during REM sleep, although sleep scientists don’t have a complete understanding of the reason. What we do know is a healthy person cannot cough in their sleep.

Our body goes through four stages of sleep, including three stages of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and REM sleep.

During NREM sleep stages, the body prepares for REM sleep by relaxing from light to deep sleep. During these stages, your brain waves slow, which suspends external awareness and prompts the brain’s restorative processes. During the final stage of NREM, your muscles become inactive, and you won’t respond to stimuli, making it hard to wake you.

The last stage of sleep, REM sleep, accounts for 20 percent of your sleep time. During this stage, your body repairs damaged tissue, and your brain stores information from the previous day. While your brain is just as active during REM sleep as it is during wakefulness, your body is paralyzed.

Body paralysis starts in the brainstem and spreads to the spinal cord, limiting nervous system communication and activity, causing REM sleep associated paralysis.

Because of body paralysis, REM sleep suppresses coughing. The only way to induce a cough or sneeze during REM sleep is by introducing irritants, such as a running nose, stomach acid in the throat or mouth, postnasal drip, allergens, or a throat blockage as it signals your brain to get rid of the stimuli.

If you cough during your sleep, it is usually a sign that there is a much deeper problem. If you’re waking sleep deprived or with a burning throat, consider seeing a physician to discuss options.

Sneezing is different, though. If your body needs to sneeze out an irritant, you will wake.


To get treatment for nocturnal cough, we suggest seeking care under the guidance of a physician. While there are some treatments you can get on your own, others are not accessible without a doctor’s prescription.

  • Continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP) can effectively alleviate chronic nocturnal coughing. It’s a machine that uses constant air pressure to keep the airways open and helps the sleeper breathe regularly.
  • Sleeping at an incline reduces acid reflux and obstructions in the throat. A wedge pillow placed under your upper torso will elevate your chest enough to keep your airways open. An adjustable bed is a more stable investment for sleeping at an incline, as the bed won’t slip out from under you as a wedge pillow would.
  • Acid blockers can prevent stomach acid from acting up and slipping past the esophageal sphincter; however, some people need surgery to rectify GERD.
  • Antihistamines, corticosteroids, and decongestants are common drugs used to alleviate allergies and post nasal drip.
  • If your coughing and sneezing are due to a bacterial, fungal, or mycobacterial infection, antibiotics will boost your immune system and help you fight off the infection.

Tips and Tricks For A Stuffy Nose

If you’re waking up with a sneeze or a cough, you were not in REM sleep, which means you most likely don’t have a case of OSA or chronic cough. The best way to avoid developing chronic cough is to take care of yourself when you are sick.


During sleep, you produce less saliva, which makes an inflamed throat more susceptible to dryness, leading to a more responsive coughing reflex. Placing a humidifier by your bedside will keep your throat moist and prevent dry coughing.

If you don’t have a humidifier, you can take a hot water bath or shower to soothe your sore throat and raise the humidity level in your home.

Over the Counter Medications

You can reduce persistent coughing through cough suppressants and expectorants (decongestants). We suggest using a cough suppressant such as cough syrup at night as it will block your cough reflex, preventing sleep disturbances.

Salt Water

Gargling a mixture of ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt and 4 to 8 ounces of warm water can soothe a scratchy throat by pulling mucus out of swollen tissue and relieving inflammation.


Avoid esophagus and nasal irritants such as dust mites, pollen, and allergens. Investing in an air purifier or keeping your home clean can significantly improve your sleep quality.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does your heart stop when you sneeze?

Sneezing does not cause your heart to stop. However, the intrathoracic pressure caused by sneezing can result in a decrease in blood flow to the vital organs, including the heart. The heart often compensates for this by adjusting its beats, not it does not completely stop beating.

Can you cough or sneeze in your sleep?

Coughing and sneezing will not take place during REM sleep, but it may occur during light sleep. In most cases, the body wakes up in order to cough or sneeze. This period of time is often so brief that you don’t remember it. Constant sleep disruptions due to coughing and sneezing can cause daytime sleepiness.

How can I check sneeze reflexes during sleep?

A sneezing reflex is a strong urge to sneeze. This happens during sleep, it will likely cause you to wake up. You can reduce the urge to sneeze by keeping your bedroom clear of airborne contaminants, such as pollen and dust mites. You should ask your bed sheets and vacuum your sleep space regularly. An air purifier can also help remove allergens, bacteria, and other toxins from your bedroom.

What does it mean if I cough in my sleep?

If you regularly cough in your sleep, it could be a sign of stuffed-up sinuses or a sinus infection. It could also be a sign of postnatal drip that is blocking the airways when you lay down. Postnasal drip can drip and tickle the back of your throat during sleep, causing you to cough in order to clear your airways.

What happens when you hold in a sneeze?

While it is difficult to hold in a sneeze, doing so can damage the blood vessels in your eyes, nose, and eardrums. Holding in a sneeze causes pressure to build up in the airways, forcing blood vessels along the nasal passage to squeeze and burst.


While we do make noises in our sleep, coughing and sneezing during REM sleep is not common. If you have a sleep partner stating you have developed a cough during your sleep for a while and you are suffering from daytime sleepiness, visit a physician to diagnose the underlying cause and receive treatment.

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