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Shortness of Breath at Night

Shortness of Breath at Night

Waking up suddenly at night gasping for breath, may be accompanied by symptoms such as severe wheezing and coughing, and a suffocating/choking feeling. This is most probably a result of conditions such as heart failure, inactivity, and a condition known as sleep apnea. The causes however, are not limited to these conditions. Only timely medical treatment will help cure the problem. Do not attempt remedies on your own.
Puja Lalwani
Last Updated: Apr 22, 2018
Usually, a diagnosis regarding the cause of shortness of breath at night cannot be made without understanding a person's medical history, as well as the family history of illnesses and disease. However, there is a particular condition that contributes to this problem, known as Paroxysmal Nocturnal Dyspnea (PND). Literally defined, dyspnea refers to shortness of breath, nocturnal refers to the night, and paroxysmal refers to sudden recurring attacks. This condition has certain causes which are common only to those who have heart failure or are patients of heart conditions, is accompanied by certain symptoms, and the only way to get it treated is by visiting a doctor and getting appropriate medication for it.

Causes of PND

The various causes of shortness of breath at night due to PND are as follows:
  • Heart Failure: Sometimes, a person may suffer from a condition known as pulmonary congestion, that refers to the collection of excess blood in the lungs. This affects those who have heart failure, as the left side of the heart does not function properly and cannot pump out the necessary amount of blood to regulate the circulation. As such, blood begins to collect in the lungs, and leads to shortness of breath when lying down.
  • Lack of Activity: Inactivity also causes this condition. When a person is inactive, for instance, in a job that only requires him to sit all day, there is a lot of fluid accumulation in the lower part of the body. When the affected person lies down to sleep at night, this fluid begins to make its way toward the lungs, and begins collecting there. If you have faced an instance of shortness of breath at night, you may have noticed that upon sitting or standing up, you feel better. This is because the fluid begins to leave the lungs and aids the breathing process.
As mentioned earlier, along with breathing difficulty, you may also suffer from severe coughing, wheezing, and even produce sputum or mucus (which may be bloody in some cases). Along with these symptoms, you may also notice that your feet and ankles have swollen up. Since it is a heart condition, you may also experience night sweats. Another symptom may be that of tightness in chest. This may be a sign of a heart problem. In such a case a medical professional must be intimated immediately. Analyze the length of the attack of shortness of breath, and what gives you comfort (standing up or propping up your pillows). All these symptoms imply that the condition may be serious, which is why, you must consult a doctor immediately.

Other Causes

One of the other prime causes of this condition is a condition known as sleep apnea. This is a condition marked by sudden bouts of breathlessness while sleeping. Usually, this is because the throat muscles relax significantly so that the airway passages are blocked, and the affected person suddenly stops breathing for a short period while sleeping, waking up breathless. Sometimes this condition is not as serious to wake up the affected person. However, in some cases, it does reach a point where the patient wakes up because of the inability to breathe. Other symptoms that accompany this condition include snoring, wheezing and choking sounds. A dangerous condition, such symptoms should be reported to a doctor immediately so that it does not worsen and cause other problems.


As mentioned earlier, shortness of breath should be reported to a doctor immediately, who is then likely to take the following measures to treat it.
  • The treatment prescribed by your doctor will vary depending on the actual cause of this condition.
  • You may be asked to reduce your sodium intake, because salt is one of the prime causes of fluid retention, which in turn is a reason you may be experiencing shortness of breath at night. This means you must reduce the intake of salt, and all sorts of canned and processed foods that are known to have high amounts of sodium.
  • Another way this condition is treated is by prescribing diuretics, that help in eliminating the excess water from your body.
  • You may be given additional oxygen to regulate your breathing pattern and eliminate this problem, particularly if the cause is sleep apnea.
  • After consulting your doctor, try to introduce small amounts of activity in your lifestyle. Even a short walk on a daily basis will help. As you become more comfortable with it, you can increase the amount as allowed by your doctor.
Check whether you experienced a sudden episode of shortness of breath at night-time, or whether it began with one symptom which gradually became associated with the other symptoms mentioned here. Whatever you experience, note it down, and provide your doctor with all the information. It is only when you do so, that he/she will be able to understand the root cause of your problem of having trouble breathing at night, and be able to treat it well.

Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only and does not, in any way, intend to replace the advice of a medical expert.