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Waking Up Gasping For Breath (Causes And Tips For Better Sleep)

This blog discusses the most common reasons for waking up gasping for breath. We also share some warning signs to stay on the lookout for so that you can seek timely medical attention.

Waking Up Gasping For Breath


Sleep apnea is the most common reason for waking up gasping for breath.

There are two main kinds of sleep apnea: obstructive and central.

If you also experience loud snoring and daytime sleepiness, seeing a doctor is best. 

Did you know?
Episodes of waking up gasping for breath are more likely to occur during the early morning hours, often between midnight and 4 a.m.

Ever find yourself abruptly waking up gasping for breath? It’s a jolting experience, and the reasons behind it range from sleep disorders to underlying heart health issues. Let’s delve into the potential causes of this issue and what you should consider if you’ve ever asked, “Why do I wake up gasping for breath?”

Why Do I Wake Up Gasping For Breath?

Here are some possible reasons why you might wake up gasping for breath:

1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): This is the most common cause of waking up gasping for breath. OSA happens when the muscles at the back of your throat relax more than they should, leading to a temporary airway blockage. This causes repeated episodes of apnea (pauses in breathing) followed by gasping or choking as you wake up to catch your breath.

2. Central Sleep Apnea: Unlike OSA, which involves a physical airway narrowing, central sleep apnea is caused by a disruption in the brain’s signals to the muscles that control your breathing. This can also lead to gasping for breath as you wake up because your body is craving more oxygen.

3. Heart Conditions: Some heart conditions, like congestive heart failure or atrial fibrillation, cause fluid to build up in the lungs and interfere with normal breathing during sleep. This forces you to wake up suddenly while also gasping or choking.

4. Nocturnal Panic Attacks: Some people experience panic attacks during sleep, leading to sudden awakening with symptoms like gasping for breath, a rapid heartbeat, and general anxiety.

5. GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease): Acid reflux can make your stomach acid move upwards into your food pipe, causing a sensation of choking. This feeling is uncomfortable for your body, so you might be jolting from your slumber while gasping for air.

6. Medications or Substances: Certain medications or substances, including sedatives, alcohol, or opioids, suppress the respiratory system, leading to disordered breathing during sleep.

7. Other Sleep Disorders: Conditions like narcolepsy or periodic limb movement disorder sometimes result in abnormal breathing patterns during sleep.

Since sleep apnea is the most common cause of waking up gasping for air, let’s look at the two types of sleep apnea more closely in the next section.

How Does Sleep Apnea Cause You To Wake Up Gasping?

How Does Sleep Apnea Cause You To Wake Up Gasping?

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) are two distinct types of sleep apnea, each with different underlying causes and impacts on your breathing:

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

Cause: OSA is the more common of the two and is primarily caused by a physical obstruction of the upper airway when sleeping.

Breathing Patterns: In OSA, there are repeated episodes of apnea (temporary pauses in breathing) or hypopnea (partial blockage of airflow), which lead to reduced oxygen levels in the blood. These episodes are often followed by snoring, choking, or gasping as your body tries to resume normal breathing

The Brain's Response: The brain continues to signal the respiratory muscles to breathe, but these signals are ineffective due to the physical obstruction. This creates a struggle to breathe during sleep.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

Cause: CSA is less common and has a different cause. It occurs when the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the muscles responsible for breathing. This lack of neural drive results in temporary pauses in breathing during sleep.

Breathing Patterns: In CSA, you experience apnea episodes without a physical airway obstruction. These pauses in breathing are typically not associated with snoring, choking, or gasping. Instead, they occur due to a failure in the central respiratory control mechanisms.

Brain's Response: Unlike OSA, where the brain continues to signal the respiratory muscles, in CSA, the brain essentially “forgets” to send these signals for brief periods, leading to a lack of effort to breathe.

Although rare, some people may have a combination of both obstructive and central components, referred to as Mixed Sleep Apnea.

Whether or not you have sleep apnea, if you wake up gasping for air or choking, there are ways to ensure that you deal with this effectively. Let’s discuss these tips in the next section.

Best Sleeping Tips If You Wake Up Unable To Breathe

Best Sleeping Tips If You Wake Up Unable To Breathe

Here are some factors to help improve your sleep quality so that you can wake up feeling calm and well-rested:

1. Sleep Position: Experiment with different sleeping positions. Elevating your upper body can slightly reduce the risk of airway obstruction. Some people find relief by sleeping on their sides with an ergonomic body pillow that supports proper alignment.

2. Bedtime Routine: Establish a calming bedtime routine. Create a peaceful atmosphere by dimming lights, practicing relaxation techniques, and avoiding stimulating activities like strenuous exercises close to bedtime.

3. Sleep Aids: Sleep aids like weighted blankets provide Deep Touch Pressure (DTP), which can help calm the nervous system. The gentle pressure of a blanket like our Cotton Napper can promote relaxation, naturally encouraging you to breathe easily as you sleep.

4. Humidifier: Dry air irritates the airways. Using a humidifier in your bedroom may add moisture to the air, reducing the likelihood of breathing difficulties when sleeping.

5. Avoid Stimulants: Limit caffeine and nicotine intake, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. These stimulants can interfere with your sleep and worsen breathing issues associated with sleep disorders like sleep apnea. For instance, alcohol can relax the muscles in your throat.

6. Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule: Stick to a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Consistency helps regulate your body’s internal clock, which encourages your body to know when it is time to wind down for bedtime.

7. Stay Hydrated: Dehydration can contribute to throat dryness and irritation. Stay adequately hydrated throughout the day, but avoid excessive fluid intake close to bedtime to avoid waking up too often when sleeping.

8. Allergies and Nasal Congestion: Allergies and nasal congestion can contribute to breathing difficulties during sleep. Consider using allergy-proof bedding, keeping windows closed during high pollen seasons, and using nasal sprays or saline rinses to alleviate congestion.

8. Weight Management: Excess weight can exacerbate breathing problems during sleep, especially in conditions like sleep apnea. Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise may help improve breathing and overall sleep quality.

Incorporating these strategies into your sleep hygiene, can help limit breathing difficulties while sleeping. But, remember that everyone’s response to these tips will differ, so it’s essential to tailor these tips to your personal preference. If sleep difficulties persist, seek guidance from a healthcare professional to address any underlying issues.

In the next section, we share a few common red flags to look out for if you’re still waking up gasping for breath after trying these self-care tips.


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When To See A Doctor

Here are some guidelines on when to seek medical attention:

1. Frequent Occurrence: If you experience episodes of waking up gasping for breath regularly or frequently, record these occurrences and speak to your doctor.

2. Other Symptoms: Symptoms such as loud snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, or difficulty concentrating can be additional indicators of a sleep disorder like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and should be discussed with your doctor.

3. Significant Impact on Daily Life: If you tend to feel like you’re suffocating in your sleep, then you might also experience fatigue, mood disturbances, daytime sleepiness… all of which can impact your daily life. This is a sign that you need medical advice to improve your quality of life.

4. Underlying Health Conditions: If you have underlying health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, or obesity, associated with sleep-related breathing disorders, it is imperative to discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider.

5. Sudden or Severe Symptoms: If you experience a sudden and severe episode of waking up gasping for breath, or if you feel like you cannot catch your breath, seek immediate medical attention, as this could be a medical emergency.

Your doctor can help determine the cause of your symptoms, and if necessary, refer you for a sleep study or other diagnostic tests to pinpoint the underlying issue. Depending on the diagnosis, appropriate treatment options can be discussed and implemented to improve sleep quality and overall health.


Waking up gasping for breath signals a potential sleep disorder like Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) or Central Sleep Apnea (CSA). Prompt medical attention is essential, especially if episodes are frequent, accompanied by other symptoms like loud snoring, or significant impact on daily life.

If you’re facing these symptoms, consult a healthcare professional for a thorough evaluation. Whether it’s related to sleep apnea, heart conditions, or other factors, keep in mind that early intervention supports overall well-being.