Becoming short of breath after physical activities or during moments of extreme stress isn’t uncommon. However, difficulty breathing when you are lying down may be a sign of a serious medical condition.
Common causes for difficulty breathing when lying down are:
Sleep apnea causes shallow or brief pauses in breathing while sleeping. This condition usually occurs due to obstruction of the airways.
Lying down too soon after eating may also cause difficulty breathing. This may be due to regurgitating food up your esophagus.
It may also be the pressure of the food in your stomach pressing down on your diaphragm. Your diaphragm separates your stomach from your lungs. Sitting up for a few hours until you digest the food can often relieve this uncomfortable feeling.
If you live with obesity or are overweight, you may experience difficulty breathing when lying down. This is because excess weight puts pressure on the lungs and diaphragm. Wearing tight clothing may cause the same feeling.
In some cases, breathing difficulty can be a sign of a medical emergency. Heart failure can be a severe cause of difficulty breathing when lying down. All types of heart failure can cause shortness of breath.
Initial symptoms may include a feeling of being breathless upon lying flat on your back. You may feel like you have difficulty taking deep breaths or breathing out.
If this symptom occurs due to a medical condition such as sleep apnea or COPD, other symptoms may be present.
Sleep apnea symptoms
The symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- difficulty staying asleep
- feeling fatigued during the day
- snoring while sleeping
- waking up with headaches
- waking up with a sore throat
The symptoms of COPD include:
- chronic coughing
- difficulty breathing with activity
- frequent chest infections, such as bronchitis
Other important symptoms
If you experience any of the following symptoms along with difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately:
Breathing difficulty isn’t always due to a serious medical condition, but you should talk to your doctor about any breathing issues right away.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam to help them diagnose the underlying cause of your breathing difficulties. They’ll ask you about your symptoms and medical history.
Your doctor will pay close attention to your heart and lungs during the physical exam. Additional tests may be necessary, such as:
Treatment depends on the underlying cause of your breathing difficulty.
If you have a respiratory infection that causes breathing difficulty when you are lying down, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or antiviral medications to help clear up the infection.
In most cases, however, minor chest infections may clear up without the use of any medications.
You can temporarily relieve difficulty breathing due to obesity by sleeping on your side instead of your back. Lying on your side decreases the pressure being put on your lungs by the excess weight.
If sleep apnea is making it difficult for you to breathe when you are lying down, you may find that using a mouth guard or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is helpful.
If an anxiety disorder is causing your breathing issues, various treatments can help ease symptoms. Group or one-on-one therapy may help you cope with anxiety.