6 Reasons Why You Might Wake Up Gasping For Air

By Tiffany Tseng. May 7th 2016

Certain cultural superstitions believe that the reason a person wakes up in the middle of sleep, gasping for air, is because there is a ghost or supernatural spirit sitting on the person’s chest.

However, science shows that there may be several reasons why a person would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air. If you constantly experience such episodes, be sure to consult a doctor or specialist to treat the problem, as some medical conditions with this symptom can prove to be fatal if undiagnosed or ignored.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder that can wake people up in the middle of sleep due to the possible obstruction of the breathing airway. The reasons of airway obstruction can range from excess tissue, weak airway muscles, position of the jaw, or a large tongue and tonsils. Be sure to seek the opinion of a sleep doctor if you suspect you have sleep apnea, because if undiagnosed for long periods of time, it can become lethal.

Heart Failure

Heart failure can cause shortness of breath that wakes a person up in the middle of the night. This condition is also known as paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea, and can be fatal if left untreated. However, don’t immediately panic if you have one isolated gasping episode in the middle of the night; paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea is also accompanied by decreased exercise tolerance (such as getting winded when climbing a flight of stairs) and ankle swelling.

Post Nasal Drip

For those prone to nasal allergies or have bad nasal colds, post nasal drip may be a familiar discomfort, and can definitely cause you to wake up in the middle of night, gasping for air. Since individuals typically sleep on their backs, nasal secretions can migrate down to the throat, which in turn, can block the airway. Since your throat sensors can notify the brain that the airway is blocked and oxygen cannot flow to the lungs, the brain would send signals to the chest muscles to cough and gasp for air. Thus, people wake up feeling like they are suffocating. Post nasal drip can usually be alleviated with antihistamines or nighttime cold medicine.

Asthma Flares

It is quite possible that gasping episodes in the middle of sleeping is caused by an asthma flare. Usually, it is accompanied by wheezing, shortness of breath and a sense of tightness in the chest. During an asthma attack, the lining of the airway becomes swollen and thick mucus is produced, which in turn can be the culprit of air shortage. These episodes can be tamed by an inhaler, having regular exercise or medication from the doctor.

Pulmonary Edema

Another common cause for shortness of breath during sleep is pulmonary edema. This is characterized by an accumulation of excess fluid in the lungs in the small lung sacs and makes breathing a difficult chore. When an affected individual is lying down, shortness of breath is increased, thus also increasing the risk of waking up gasping for air. Acute pulmonary edema, which is characterized by a sensation of drowning, is considered a medical emergency and should be seen by a doctor immediately.


Sometimes, waking up in the middle of the night, gasping is more of a psychological problem than a physical one. When a person is under extreme stress, suffers from anxiety or has panic attacks, it is very possible to suddenly wake up in the middle of the night with excessive sweating, rapid heartbeat and shortage of breath. You may be in the middle of a vivid nightmare and not even know it until you escape it. As strange as it sounds, it is possible to have a panic attack while sleeping. During these instances, seeing a therapist or adopting stress relieving methods can greatly decrease the instances of gasping for breath in the middle of the night.

Next Steps

Disrupted sleep, in general, can lead to other medical conditions, such as depression, mood swings and an inability to focus. Eventually, it can lower your quality of life and potentially be fatal. Be sure to see your doctor if you wake up gasping for air during sleep, because that is not a normal condition by all means. Hopefully this information will lead you to more restful nights and sweeter dreams!

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