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What Causes Difficulty Breathing When Lying Down?

Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, MD, MPH on February 7, 2018Written by April Kahn

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. Many things can cause difficulty breathing,... Read More

Should I be concerned about difficulty breathing when lying down?

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.

Many things can cause difficulty breathing, including diseases, anxiety disorders, and lifestyle factors. It isn’t always a medical emergency, but you should make an appointment with your doctor.

What causes difficulty breathing when lying down?

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’re obese or extremely 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.

What symptoms should I look out for?

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:

COPD symptoms

The symptoms of COPD include:

Other important symptoms

If you experience any of the following symptoms along with difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately:

When should I seek help for breathing issues?

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.

Tell your doctor about every over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medication you’re taking. Certain drugs people take for treating pain, muscle stiffness, or anxiety can cause breathing issues.

Your doctor will pay close attention to your heart and lungs during the physical exam. Additional tests may be necessary, such as:

How are breathing issues treated?

Treatment depends on the underlying cause of your breathing difficulty.

Respiratory infection

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. However, in most cases, minor chest infections may clear up without the use of any medications.

Obesity

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. Talk to your doctor about weight loss and ask about diet plans. Losing weight can help prevent future health concerns associated with obesity.

COPD

No cure for COPD is available, but you can relieve breathing difficulties with fast-acting inhalers or other medications people use to clear lung infections.

Sleep apnea

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.

Anxiety

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. Treatment usually involves therapy combined with antidepressant or antianxiety medications. These medications are available by prescription only.

Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, MD, MPH on February 7, 2018Written by April Kahn

20 possible conditions

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, MD, MPH on February 7, 2018Written by April Kahn
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