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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 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:

  • panic disorder
  • snoring
  • respiratory infections
  • sleep apnea
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Sleep apnea causes shallow or brief pauses in breathing while sleeping. This condition usually occurs due to an obstruction in the airways.

Lying down too soon after eating may also cause difficulty breathing. This may be due to food regurgitating up your esophagus or due to 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. A severe cause of difficulty breathing when lying down is heart failure.

What to look 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.

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
  • wheezing
  • frequent chest infections like bronchitis

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

  • pain in the chest
  • shooting pains in the arms and neck or shoulders
  • a fever
  • rapid breathing
  • a rapid heart rate
  • a weak pulse
  • dizziness upon standing or sitting

When to seek help

Breathing difficulty may not always be 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 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:

  • chest X-rays to view the heart and lungs
  • an echocardiogram to view and diagnose potential problems with heart function
  • an electrocardiogram to test the electrical activity of the heart

How are breathing issues treated?

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of your breathing difficulty.

If you have a respiratory infection that causes breathing difficulty when lying down, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or antiviral medications to help clear up an infection. However, minor chest infections may clear up without the use of any medications in most cases.

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. Ask them about diet plans. Losing weight can help prevent future health concerns associated with obesity.

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.

If you have difficulty breathing when lying down due to sleep apnea, you may be able to help it by using a mouth guard or continuous positive airway pressure.

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.

Content licensed from:

Written by: April Kahn
Medically reviewed on: Jul 01, 2016: Carissa Stephens, RN, BSN, CCRN, CPN

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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