Waking Up Gasping For Air Is Your Worst Enemy: 6 Ways To Defeat It

a woman on bed waking up

Have you anytime woken up startled and gasping for breath? Or in your sleep felt like being flung off from the cliff? Have your arms or body twitched involuntarily?

Well, all these are symptoms of obstructed breathing in sleep. Is it dangerous? Why does it happen? Can it be cured?

Find answers to all this and much more as you read further.

Waking Up Gasping For Air: The Phenomena

Sleep is the body’s way of relaxing and recuperation. Besides, all kinds of muscle recovery and repair of the body system happen during sleep. Nutrition assimilation, growth, and development of tissues, muscles, and cells occur during sleep.

Undisturbed and peaceful sleep for 6-8 hours is also very beneficial for cognitive abilities. Also, it is favorable for emotional stability.

Post childhood, peaceful sleep is a rare experience for us humans. However, there are various reasons for disturbed sleep. One of them could be real reasons like ill health. Other could be some disorder based on our research in sleepeducation.org. And attribute a few to psychological or emotional causes.

Quite often, the sleep is disturbed suddenly because of feeling breathless. That is quite a dreadful experience.  Also, one feels like being strangulated. Native folklore holds the spirits responsible for it.  They say spirits come and sit on the chest of the person.

That apart, medical science has a clear explanation for this. Also, it offers solutions too to avoid it. The inability to breathe smoothly and normally is very risky. It needs resolution in a good time.

a woman standing up on the window

What Are The Risks?

Though a bit challenging to comprehend, one may have interrupted sleep or lack of deep and peaceful sleep. Consequently, it can lead to lots of unpleasant situations in the mind and body.

Obstructed breathing leads to very severe and grave consequences like:

  • Cardiac Arrest: lack of oxygen to the heart muscles leads to cardiac arrest. Especially in a person who has a history of heart ailments.
  • Stroke: Insufficient oxygen to the brain cells can subsequently paralyze the cells. Dangerously, it can lead to a stroke.
  • High Blood Pressure: Irregular and insufficient sleep boosts blood pressure. And if that happens for a prolonged time, it results in an unpleasant state of blood pressure.
  • Depression: Because of lack of deep sleep, the mind is restless and emotional stability is very low. Therefore, a feeling of depression and irritation sets. This mood, if prolonged for too long, can make depression worse. That is going to disrupt a healthy life to a great extent.
  • Accidents: The body needs its share of sleep to recuperate and function normally. Often when the night sleep is disturbed, one may feel sleepy in the daytime. Moreover, the chances of sleeping on the steering while driving, increase substantially. It becomes risky to drive, and accidents may happen.

Similarly, working on heavy machinery and such jobs that require the mind to be in a state of high alert, must be avoided.

In quite a few cases, diabetes may worsen because of continued disturbed sleep.

The ability to concentrate suffers tremendously. A general lack of interest and lethargy envelopes the person. Also, he takes less interest in life activities.

Waking Up Gasking For Air: In A Nutshell

There are several risks mentioned above and could be a few more not mentioned. These risks amply justify the need to take this disorder seriously. And cure it in the nascent stage. However, if ignored and left untreated, one may have to suffer a lot. Also, the treatment and remedies will get complicated and confusing.

Factors That Increase The Risk Of Sleep-Disordered Breathing or Waking Up Gasping For Air

Sleep apnea or sleep-disordered breathing can afflict anyone without any discrimination according to thoracic.org. But, research and data indicate higher probabilities in case of:

  • Excess Weight: The excess fat in the throat region tends to block the airways. Though not all, a particular number of obese bodies suffer from restricted breathing during sleep. On the contrary, thin and lean people also suffer sleep-disordered breath. Although excessive weight increases the chances of the disorder.
  • Narrow Airway: Because of genetics disorder, the airway passage itself may be too narrow. At the time, the inflamed tonsils may block the passage and obstruct breathing.
  • High Blood Pressure (Hypertension): People suffering from high blood pressure stand a higher chance of suffering from restricted breathing during sleep.
  • Chronic Nasal Congestion: Any nasal congestion, for whatever reason, will make the movement of air difficult. Besides, breathing gets difficult in such cases. Particularly when asleep.
  • Diabetes: Usually, people with diabetic conditions have disordered breathing when asleep.
  • Menopause: Postmenopause, quite a few women, develop the condition of restricted breathing. Additionally leading to snoring and sleep apnea.
  • Family History: Being from a family, which already has a history of suffering from sleep apnea, increases the probability of restricted breathing during sleep.

a woman waking up gasping for air

How To Diagnose?

Obstructed breathing in sleep is more prevalent in men. That is because of the anatomical difference in the respiratory system. Besides, the incidence increases in men beyond the age of 60. Women, too, can suffer from suffocated breathing during sleep. But the percentage is relatively less. However, post menstruation, the chances of sleep breathlessness increases in case of women.

The most apparent sign of obstructed breathing during sleep is snoring. The snoring is quite loud and prolonged to the extent of putting the sleeping partner to discomfort. Also, groaning in sleep is another sign to look for in case of breathless sleep.

A feeling of grogginess or sleepiness is prevalent during the daytime. These signs indicate the incidence of breathless sleeping. However, other diagnostic processes and procedures help to fix the presence of breathing disorder during sleep conclusively.

Polysomnography (PSG)

A detailed overnight Polysomnography (PSG) is the ultimate diagnostic test. It is to ascertain the presence of obstructed breathing during sleep. Wherein, an extensive and complicated examination PSG monitors several parameters throughout the night like:

  • Nasal/Oral Airflow: The quantity of air that has moved through the respiratory system. It gives a fair indication of the volume of air inhaled. That, when compared with the standards, provides evidence of sufficiency/insufficiency of breath
  • Thoracic-Abdominal Movement: Non-jerky smooth movement of this part of the body. It indicates normal breathing.
  • EEG: Electroencephalography measures the activity of the brain. It uses the electrical impulses generated in the brain. Thus, it is a fair indication of the way the brain works.
  • EOG: Electrooculography measures the movement of the eye in sleep. Rapid eye movements captured to estimate the ‘soundness’ of the sleep
  • Snoring: Blocked airway passage is indicative of breathlessness. The frequency and intensity of snoring are a fair measure of how the air passage blocks in the respiratory system. This can also cause waking up gasping for air.
  • EMG: It measures the nerve to muscle signal transmission and reactions. Generally, a balanced performance indicates a good supply of oxygen.
  • Oxygen Saturation: The amount of oxygen packed in the Haemoglobin also gives an idea of the adequacy of oxygen to the cells and tissue.

Other Diagnosis Options

Typically, monitoring all the above parameters ensures timely detection of obstructed breathing, Also its after-effects. The PSG is a comprehensive and conclusive diagnostic test. Then too, it is not practical and possible to use for every patient. Besides, the availability of equipment and the cost involved sometimes inhibit the usage of this test.

However, smaller tests, to check one parameter at a time, can be employed. These can detect the presence of obstructed breathing. The results may not come out very conclusive. But the diagnostic wisdom of the doctor can always fill in the gap.

All The Reasons/Solutions

Constricted airway causes disordered breathing or waking up gasping for air. The constriction can be for various physical and physiological reasons. Alternatively, some non-physical factors, too, can contribute to sleep-disordered breath. Let us look at some of the prevalent factors as the sleeptherapeutics.ca says:

1. Postnasal Drip

The nasal passage has a lining of mucous membranes that secrete fluids. These fluids, in their ordinary course, keep the nasal and respiratory passage coated to prevent any infection.

In some cases, during the sleep, the liquid may drip down to the throat and get clogged there. As a result, the airway jams up and breathing also chokes. Moreover, this reason becomes more pronounced when the subject lies down supine.

If the underlying cause is postnasal drip, the person will have a bad taste in the mouth. Also, there will be a headache, typical of sinusitis.


The excess mucous from the nasal passage washes off using special devices, known as Neti Pots. These are easy to use and come with standard instructions. Alternatively, while sleeping, the head can be supported in such a way that mucous drains. It must pass uninterrupted through the throat to the stomach.

On a doctor’s prescription, a steroidal nasal spray is useful.

2. Hypnagogic jerk

These are involuntary movements, sometimes just of the hand. Also, at times there are jerks of the whole body. One generally experiences this only as of the sleep sets. It is a very bizarre feeling of falling off a cliff. One gets up with a jerk, all tensed up. The tensed muscle blocks breathing momentarily.

This experience may come with profuse sweating and increased heartbeat.


It is a lifestyle-related cause. Hence, some modifications in the lifestyle can reduce and do away with hypnagogic jerks. Equally important is to reduce stress in life. Don’t let small things disturb you beyond a point. Never have a caffeinated drink at least 6 hours before you sleep. Instead, try to regulate your sleeping schedule and follow it religiously. It will help reduce violent jerks.

3. Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The throat muscles relax as much that they loosen up. Then they block the air passage through the throat. It is obstructive sleep apnea and can cause waking up and gasping for air.

Morning headaches, high blood pressure, and loud snoring also accompany this cause.


If obese, the patient should immediately work on reducing weight. This can also cause a lot of issues like paradoxical breathing. Also, smoking should stop instantaneously. Positive airway pressure is a very viable solution in this case. With the aid of external equipment, the air positively forced into the respiratory system at the appropriate pressure. This way, it overcomes any obstruction in the path.

4. Pulmonary Edema

The breathing becomes heavy and strenuous. It happens because fluid gets collected in the air space and tissues inside the lungs.

Generally, this condition takes time to develop. But it could be swift and sudden in some cases.

The heavy breathing leads to breathlessness.  And one gets up with a start and panic. Typically associated symptoms of this condition are wheezing, irregular heartbeats, and frothy sputum with blood spots.


Medical treatment should start immediately in the case of pulmonary edema. Since it is a severe disease, and if not treated in time, can result in fatality.

Medications administered help to reduce the pressure of the fluid. Also, it helps to widen the tissue and blood vessels. Effectively it reduces the pressure on the lungs.

5. Anxiety And Panic Attacks

Many people have panic and anxiety attacks in sleep. Anxiety in sleep causes waking up and gasping for air.


The person should see a therapist or a counselor reduce anxiety bouts. The psychiatrist can help with medications. It is to control the anxiety and panic within limits. However, prolonged anxiety attacks can permanently damage the psyche and mental stability of the patients.

6. Acid reflux

At times, there can be specific disorders in the digestive tract and systems. In consequence, the gastric acid from the stomach splashes into the esophagus. Very intense acid reflux can throw the acid right, up to the throat. In such cases, the person feels gagged in sleep, and breathing becomes difficult.

The same acid reflux can also occur when you tend to lie down after eating.


Acid reflux occurs due to extreme acidity or severe indigestion. Therefore one must avoid fatty and spicy food. Also, eat food at a fixed time. Neither overeat nor go hungry. Sleep with your head raised a little above the level of your esophagus and stomach. Over the counter antacids help in alleviating the symptoms

In case of severe acid reflux, one should see a doctor and follow the prescribed medication.

Almost everyone has gone breathless in sleep sometime or the other in his life.  Without knowing what caused it.  Lifestyle, tensions, and stress, unhealthy bodies are responsible for this. In addition to some medical disorders.

Simple changes in lifestyle and habits can prevent breathless sleep. Though, in most cases, it is harmless. But it is also known to lead to severe and fatal consequences.

With a fresh understanding of how and why waking up and gasping for air happens, one can sensibly stay clear of breathless sleep. On the whole, enjoy a good life and health.


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