Why am I gasping for breath in my sleep?
Something has been happening to me lately. About 2 weeks ago, when I'd get really relaxed at the point of falling asleep, I'd wake up from a forceful gasp of breath. It was like as if someone was trying to suffocate me. This continued 5 nights in a row. Then it stopped for 2 days. During this time, I recorded myself asleep to see if it was happening to me while I was sleeping and I did this about 7 times in an hour but the breathing sounded different at times. The start with, I was doing this through my mouth and then I could here myself take a breath afterwards but then I had a very forceful breath in through my nose sounding more like a loud snore or a need to catch my breath and that is what I am continuing to do now. I am taking this breath in. This is just one breath, but happens repeadedly about every 5 to 10 minutes or so. This week, it started in again waking me up right when I'd first fall asleep. Then it started waking me up during my sleep, the most being 3 times. Last night, everytime I would get to where I'd fall asleep - this forceful breathing through my nose - would wake me up. It happened about 7 times before I actually was able to go to sleep and stay asleep and it woke me up a couple of times during my sleep. But it doesn't take me very long before I go back to sleep. I thought the start with maybe this was sleep apnea but I did this twice yesterday while awake so now I don't know what to think. My brother has a severe form of this disorder but it does not affect him while he's awake. I cannot stop this breathing problem by sleeping a certain way, even sleeping with my head propped up doesn't help. And I am really getting tired of this happening to me when I am trying to sleep. My legs also mildy jerk when I am trying to rest and it only happens when I am laying down. I have problems with a fast and pounding pulse (not heart related though) and I thought that may be the cause but my legs jerk even when my pulse isn't pounding. Sometimes my whole body will jerk and I've had that problem for a very long time. I'd say I have the symptoms of sleep apnea. I've had to take sleeping pills for about 4 years now. Been dealing with chronic fatigue (sometimes extreme) for 9 years, since I was 26 yrs old and my doctors have not been able to figure out what's wrong. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia about 5 years ago, but that too is more or less a mystery. I suffer from clinical depression and anxiety. The depression also gets worse when I am really tired. I don't snore all night but when I do snore, it is extremely loud. The fatigue has me disabled from feeling like doing anything most of the time. I've had blood work this year that showed my hemoglobin and hematocrit mildly elevated many times and once my carbon dioxide was mildly elevated. I smoke 2 packs of cigarettes a day. My left lung base is mildly scarred but there is no disease state. I would not even think twice of this being anything other than sleep apnea if I hadn't took those breaths yesterday while awake. I have had recurring upper respiratory infections all year and since September, I've had frequent problems with fluid in my ears and recurring Otitis Media - middle ear infection in my right ear with a sore throat. The mucus is draining down in my throat. I can actually hear the congestion in my neck. Also getting pain in the temple of my forehead, pain and numbness in my cheek area and jaw, my throat and neck just hurting on the right side, and pain down the back of my neck. And all of this is on the right side of my head. But the entire back of my head will get numb. Sometimes I hurt on the left side of my face, but most of the time it's on the right side. I get frequent headaches from this, mostly in the night time. But I have been waking up lately with mild headaches. I think I may have sinusitis with these problems I'm having but I've never had an x-ray to know for sure. I get pain and numbess through my entire body so I never really thought before that this could be a seperate problem from that until the pain started flaring up with the ear infections. Can sinusitis cause you to breath this way in your sleep or would this more likely be sleep apnea or something else? If it might be sleep apnea, why would I start doing this while awake? I know that you can not actually diagnose this but your opinion would really be apprieciated. I will be seeing my primary care doctor soon over this but I would like some info about this ahead of time if possible as I'm just not sure what to think about this.. Thank you ... in advance.
by Kevin Pho, MDBlank, Jan 14, 2006
Difficult to say without examination.  You can consider diseases like asthma or sleep apnea for instance.

A reasonable approach would be a sleep study - so one can examine whether you have apnea (i.e. stopped breathing) during sleep.  If so, a CPAP machine can be considered for proper treatment.

I would also consider imaging the lungs (with a chest x-ray or CT scan) as well as measuring the pulmonary function to evaluate for asthma or other lung diseases.

The chronic sinusitis can be evaluated by an ENT physician as well as imaging the sinuses (with a CT scan).  

These options can be discussed with your personal physician.

Followup with your personal physician is essential.

This answer is not intended as and does not substitute for medical advice - the information presented is for patient education only. Please see your personal physician for further evaluation of your individual case.

Kevin, M.D.
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Member Comments (6)
by chaterbox, Jan 13, 2006
Hi mary,
I just wanted to tell you your not alone. I have the same problem at night gasping for air but it seems to only happen when I am over tired , not getting the right sleep or my diet is off. I am on zoloft for anxiety and that has seemed to help my doctor told me that this problem is anxiety.
My new doctor would like me to go to a sleep clinic to be monitored at some point. I just wanted to write to you because I always feel like it only happens to me. If you get any other information I would be interested in hearing from you.
take care and I hope it gets better for you.

by Aruba417, Jan 13, 2006
This also happened to me but it was really weird. I was actually dreaming that I was drowning, and when I woke up, I had the same gasping for air and it took a couple seconds before I could catch my breath. And then it happened a few more times when I wasn't dreaming. My doctor said it was also anxiety related. I'm not a smoker and I have no asthma or any breathing problems when I'm awake. And it hasn't happened in a long time, either.

Good luck, I know it's scary and annoying!
I take Buspar for my anxiety and it works wonders. I absolutely love it. It really helps. I've had anxiety problems for 18 years, it started when I was a teenager. The only type of breathing problem I ever had from that was hyperventilation and it stopped years ago after I started using Buspar. These episodes do not always wake me up but when they do, it can be quite disturbing. I video taped myself taking a nap today to see exactly what is happening and I breath normal up until the gasp for breath and after I breath back out, my chest muscles quit moving for about 15 seconds. I couldn't tell that I was breathing at all. I seen this happen after each forceful breath I took. That was scary to see that. But I'm really confused now. Because with sleep apnea, don't you quit breathing before that gasp for breath or during it? I really don't think this is an anxiety issue for me. I woke up to a mild headache this morning only for it to end up being so severe, that it was causing me to cry. I took a nasty sinus attack. I'm sure that has something to do with what's going on here. I'd figure that's why this breathing problem was so much worse last night. Thank you both so much for the comments!  
I've been thinking about what both of you said and unless you don't have any other symptoms of apnea, I would not just disregard this as anxiety. This health issue can actually be a cause of anxiety, depression or mood swings. If you are fighting for your breath, on top of having the gasping spell, I'd be concerned. If you have any of these symptoms, you should discuss it with your physician, if you have most all of the symptoms, I'd demand a sleep study be done. And also, smoking does not have to be a factor into having this condition. If you are prone to morning headaches, daytime sleepiness, feeling like you never had any sleep, have loud snoring possibly interupted with pauses and then followed by a loud gasp snort or choking sound, have high blood pressure, or a rapid/pounding pulse.
You could also, as I did, record yourself to make sure this isn't going on all night in your sleep. What I am doing is taking a forceful breath through my nose, and after a short time following that, I quit breathing and then I resume breathing with a deep breath. And sometimes I moan like I was suffocating to death. My doctor sent me home with an oximeter but the results were normal. I don't know if it was because I was awake for awhile during the middle of the test, or maybe the oxygen level was too high because of the carbon monoxide level in this house with all the gas stoves for heating, or where I smoke, but something wacked these results up. I am about 99% positive that I have sleep apnea now. I had surgery monday and during recovery, they repeadedly woke me up and told me to stay awake because I wasn't wanting to breathe. I figure I have a deviated septum like my brother did. My nose is larger to one side than on the other and I am keeping otitis media and what seems to be chronic sinusitis, of which a deviated septum will cause. I am going to be following up with an ENT specialist but am hoping to show my doctor that video and get him to order a sleep study on me too because an oximeter is not accurate enough to diagnose or disclude the condition. But it can be helpful enough into helping to get a diagnosis.
by B_E_W, May 14, 2006
Sometimes I drift off to sleep and "snort."  I feel like a fool.  I'm thinking that I've stopped breathing and this is a gasp/snort.  I'm glad to find this site and will be checking with my doctor for more informtion and tests.
by TrueBlue760, Oct 06, 2008
A related discussion, Sleep Apnea? was started.
by kaykay4470, Feb 15, 2013
A related discussion, sleep disorders was started.