Waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air

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Has anybody ever experienced this before? Over the past year I've been experiencing a lot of unsettling symptoms (severe shortness of breath, PVCs, palpitations, all of which get worse upon exertion) and have seen a cardiologist, got a full workup with all the tests (stress, ekg, holter monitor, TEE) and they couldn't find anything. I even saw a pulmonologist who told me I was experiencing irregular breathing but he hasn't really diagnosed it (just gave me and inhaler, which didn't improve anything).

  But recently, I've been having a new symptom. I'll go to sleep at night, and a few hours later I'll wake up gasping for air, like I'm being suffocated.  My breaths are extremely short and it feels like I'm unable to get anough oxygen, which wakes me up. It's very startling and keeps me awake for hours after it happens, with the dyspnea even more aggrivated. I haven't spoken to my cardiologist yet but after my workup, he seemed to think there was nothing wrong with my heart. However, this new addition to my symptoms has me quite scared.  I don't quite know what to do and was wondering if anyone had any experience that could shed some light on it?

1 like, 42 replies

42 Replies

  • Posted

  • Posted

    When you have 10 minutes try lying on your back completly flat, see how long you can lie flat for, does your breathing change or is it more difficult to breathe?

    When you go to bed try propping yourself up.

    Icant lie flat, not even for a minute. When i do its like my body forgets how to breathe. I sleep with 8 pillows piled high so i am practically sitting up, i have done since i was a toddler. I have a heart condition and my cardiilogist say its fluid.

  • Posted

    hello Scott this happened tome once and it feltlike oneof those horror movies that you woke up from a nightmare.it was really scary and i rember extending my arm feeling that air is totally takenout of me and i woke up grasping for air to breathe.

    It might help to have some lifestyle modification,lose weight if you are overweight or obese, try to sleep on your side.A  custommade mouthpiece might help you too.CPAP or (continuous positive aiway pressure) might be helpful if you suffer from this most of the time, this gently blows air to your throat. it would be wise to seek your dr's opinion on this. So you could get a good night sleep rather than feel lethargic during the day.

  • Posted


    I have woken in the middle of the night gasping for air many times. I have severe sleep apnea and I wear a mask now whenever I sleep or even when I lay down. It is very comforting to have the air pressure there for breathing.

    I also have Myocarditis which is very tricky and hard to detect.

    I wish you the very best and a better investigation into your health issues!

    Take good care of yourself!


  • Posted

    I've have experienced this twice, once as a side effect of medication for BP control and second only a month ago a result of atrial flutter.

    ?In the first case I confirmed nocturnal breathlessness with sudden awakening as a result of blood oxygen saturation level instability which can lead to sudden and unpredictable levels below 88%. Resolved by withdrawal of causative drugs. I got the proof through using a finger mounted recording pulse oximeter which I used overnight.

    ?In the second case I experienced the same nocturnal waking breathless symptoms but this time it was my heart going into atrial flutter resulting in inability of blood oxygenation through onset of heart failure. I did walk into A&E but quickly ended up in an emergency bay. Later on whilst in the cardiac ward and plugged into every piece of diagnostic kit available I was expected to go to sleep with at least 92% SpO2 (the blood oxygen saturation level).

    ?I suspect you may be experiencing low nocturnal SpO2 which is not observable during daytime  Even a non-recording pulse oximeter may be useful to see if you are going to sleep with sufficiently high blood oxygen level.

    ?Ambulatory SpO2 is usually in the 95-99% range whilst sleeping it can easily drop with snoring being an extra complicating factor.


  • Posted

    Hi Scott,

    I was aking up gasping in the night for almost a year.  My problem turned out to be low thyroid.  Doctors don't associate this symptom with the thyroid but I had a friend who experienced the same thing.  She woke up in the night gasping for years.  The doctor always told her it was anxiety.  But all those years he also told her that her thyroid levels were borderline butnot low enough to treat.  She assumed he was right abaout the anxiety because she is a worrier.  Years later when her thyroid numbers went low enough for treatment, she got on medication.  One month later the gasping stopped.  

    My experience was very similar.  I've been on thyroid medication for a little over a month and the gasping is about 90% better.  They tested me also for heart problems, sleep apnea (I had a good night that particular night--was frustrated about it at the time that they didn't catch it but now I can see it was for the best because sleep apnea was not the problem), and reflux.  All were negative.  The doc wanted to put me on meds for anxiety but I didn't do it because I knew that wasn't the problem.  I am not saying this is your problem but you caould ask to get it checked...and sometimes reflux causes it as well.  

    I was really ill with my TSH on the high end of normal though.  I didn't get treated until it was out of range.  A high TSH means your thyroid hrmones are low.  I hope you find the answer!! 

  • Posted

    Among other possible reasons for waking up gasping for air could be that your face may be buried in your pillow thus cutting off your air supply.

    There are unfortunately many reasons why you could be waking up gasping for air.

    Finding out which one of them is responsible is a formidable task!

  • Posted

    Scott, I am dealing with the exact same thing! Have you found anything out? I've been dealing with this for the past year

    • Posted

      Hi Greg, within the past year or so I'd been to multiple doctors, including cardiologists, neurologists and a pulmonary doctor. The pulmonary doctor ran some breathing tests on me and it turns out that, among other things, my lungs were hyperinflated and my lung capacity was at about 40%. He prescribed me a Flovent and Ventolin inhaler and things have been slowly improving. Have you been to see a pulmonary doctor?

    • Posted

      I have not been to a pulmonary doctor yet! Thanks for the reply
    • Posted

      I know what you mean. It's tricky because anxiety mimics a lot of the lung and heart related symptoms.  And from my experience, anxiety can create a cycle of exacerbating the problem, which in turn makes you more anxious! I'd recommend trying a pulmonary doctor, or even a neurologist to see if it could be nervous system related. Those are the avenues I explored after the cardiologist. I hope things improve for you Greg, stay strong!

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