A morning cough is a common symptom with many potential causes, most of which are relatively mild.

Heartburn from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), bronchitis, postnasal drip, or asthma can all cause a morning cough.

In some cases, a morning cough can be due to a chronic disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

This article explores possible causes of morning cough, symptoms, treatment options, and when to speak with a doctor.

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Postnasal drip occurs when excess mucus from the nose drips down the back of the throat, leading to an upper airway cough. Other symptoms of postnasal drip include:

  • sore throat
  • swallowing frequently
  • feeling a lump in the throat

Sometimes, postnasal drip is a temporary issue when a person has an infection, such as a cold or flu, or allergies to something in the environment, including seasonal allergies.

In other cases, postnasal drip can be a more chronic problem.

People with chronic congestion from a deviated septum or gastroesophageal reflux may experience frequent postnasal drip. Advancing age may also increase the risk.

Treatment options

If an infection is causing postnasal drip, it will usually disappear on its own. If it lasts longer than a few weeks, a person may need antibiotics to clear a bacterial infection.

The following remedies may also help:

  • drinking lots of water
  • sleeping in a room with a humidifier
  • sleeping with the head slightly elevated

Asthma causes chronic airway inflammation and irritation. This can trigger asthma attacks, during which the airway narrows and a person struggles to breathe. They may also have a wheezing or whistling sound coming from their chest.

An individual may also have chronic respiratory problems, such as a cough. Some people may notice this cough is worse at night or in the morning.

In certain types of asthma, a chronic cough is the only symptom.

Treatment options

Some people with asthma find that allergens or other triggers cause their cough. This can include pollen, air pollution, or certain weather conditions. Avoiding or limiting exposure to these triggers can be helpful.

A doctor may also prescribe a rescue inhaler for asthma attacks or asthma medicine to reduce inflammation in the airway.

Bronchitis refers to inflammation in the bronchial tubes, which help air travel to the lungs.

Sometimes, a bacterial or viral infection can cause this condition — these infections can occur after a cold or flu.

Symptoms include:

Viral bronchitis usually goes away on its own. People may require antibiotics to treat any complications of bronchitis, such as pneumonia.

A person can also develop chronic bronchitis, which may cause long-term or recurring inflammation in the bronchial tubes.

Treatment options

Treatment focuses on removing the source of inflammation, such as avoiding smoking or second-hand smoke, and using medications to reduce swelling and inflammation.

The throat and mouth can become dry at night, especially if people:

  • do not drink enough fluids
  • sleep in a dry room
  • sleep with their mouth open

This can cause the tissue at the back of the throat to feel irritated and scratchy, leading to a morning cough. People may also experience:

  • trouble swallowing
  • hoarse voice
  • a burning feeling

Individuals may find the problem resolves by drinking more water, especially in the morning.

In some cases, chronic dry mouth may appear due to underlying health conditions, such as Sjögren’s syndrome, or medications such as diuretics.

Treatment options

If people find no relief by drinking more water or using a humidifier, they can consult with their doctor, who can check for underlying causes.

With GERD, stomach acid travels back up the esophagus, causing a burning, painful sensation and frequent heartburn.

People may experience symptoms at night if they eat shortly before lying down, which may lead to morning hoarseness or coughing.

Severe GERD may also irritate the throat or lungs, causing a chronic cough or difficulty swallowing.

Treatment options

Routine changes, such as consuming fewer acidic foods and eating at least 3 hours before lying down, may help. Some people may also find relief from sleeping with their head slightly elevated or by using over-the-counter antacids.

If these treatments are not effective, a doctor may prescribe medication or recommend surgery.

COPD is a chronic and progressive disease that makes it harder to breathe.

Over time, the condition damages the tiny air sacs in the lungs, making it harder for the lungs to exchange gas and take in oxygen.

Symptoms can include:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • low energy

People may experience mild symptoms initially, which may become more severe over time.

Treatment options

Although there is no cure for COPD, a number of routine changes may help to ease symptoms, such as:

  • getting more exercise
  • quitting smoking
  • medication to help open the airways
  • oxygen therapy
  • breathing treatments

Hypothyroidism is a condition where the thyroid produces too little thyroid hormone. It may cause a person’s voice to sound hoarse. Some people also have a sensation of something stuck in the throat, which can cause a cough.

While some notice a cough throughout the day, it may be worse in the morning when the throat is dry.

Treatment options

Medication can treat hypothyroidism, but it may take several months of treatments to notice an improvement in the voice.

Certain types of cancer, including lung cancer, may cause a chronic cough. In some people, this cough may be worse in the morning.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a cough from cancer and other types of coughs, so it is important to speak with a doctor about any persistent coughing.

Treatment options

Treatment depends on the type of cancer a person has, but strategies may include radiation or chemotherapy.

An occasional morning cough might mean a person has a dry throat or mild allergies. Chronic coughing, either in the morning or at other times, may indicate a chronic medical condition that needs treatment.

People should speak with a doctor if:

  • symptoms continue even after treatment for an infection
  • coughing persists for more than a few weeks
  • they cough up blood
  • they have other symptoms, such as a fever or trouble breathing
  • a newborn has a cough

Visit the emergency room if a person is experiencing a cough with chest pain, shortness of breath, or confusion, or they are coughing up large quantities of blood.

Most coughs are treatable. Even in the cases of a serious underlying medical condition, such as cancer, early intervention may greatly improve outcomes.

If people have an unexplained, persistent cough, they can consult with a doctor. Healthcare professionals can help assess symptoms and carry out tests to determine the underlying cause of the cough and recommend treatment options.