Patients with respiratory disease commonly report that their sleep is disrupted by nocturnal cough. We have recorded cough during the night in 10 patients with severe chronic bronchitis and emphysema (forced expiratory volume in one second, 1.0 +/- SEM 0.1/L) who complained of nocturnal cough and correlated cough with electroencephalographic sleep stage and arterial oxygenation. Cough was recorded using a directional microphone and an auto-editing tape recorder system. Each cough was subsequently verified by a listener. There was a mean of 14.6 +/- 4.5 bouts of coughing per patient per night, each bout lasting on average 3.9 +/- 0.2 s. Eighty-five percent of coughing bouts occurred during electroencephalographically confirmed wakefulness (p less than 0.02 versus sleep), and coughs during true sleep were rare, with only 1 patient coughing during rapid eye movement sleep and none during Stages 3 and 4 sleep. Cough was only once followed by arousal. There was no correlation between cough and either apneas or hypoxemia during sleep. We conclude that spontaneous cough is suppressed during sleep and only rarely awakens patients.