Can Breathing Difficulties from COPD Affect Sleep? How To Sleep Better? Update 05/2024

One of the main symptoms of COPD is shortness of breath, exhaustion, and difficulty in breathing properly. Walking or exercising can be challenging if you have COPD because of the difficulties in collecting your breath. Even if you’re just sitting or relaxing, you may feel yourself gasping for air.

Dyspnea is the medical word for wheezing and panting. It’s common for people with COPD to suffer from dyspnea since their lungs have been damaged.

What Is COPD?

Inflammation of the lungs and obstruction of airflow are the hallmarks of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two of the conditions that make up COPD, which is characterized by lung tissue deterioration and a constant, mucus-producing cough. Many patients with COPD are bothered by the two conditions.

Nearly 16 million Americans suffer from COPD, making it the third leading cause of death in the country. More than seventy-five percent of people with COPD had a history of smoking. The chance of getting COPD can also be increased by exposure to other pollutants, secondhand smoke, and, in rarer cases, hereditary disorders. When COPD worsens over time, symptoms including shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, and a persistent cough are all possible outcomes. People with COPD are also more vulnerable to other infections, such as pneumonia.


While COPD symptoms can begin to show at any time, they tend to worsen over time, especially if smoking persists.

The following are some signs and symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease:

  • Breathlessness, especially when engaging in strenuous physical activity.
  • Wheezing.
  • There is a tightness in the chest.
  • Sputum that is clear, white, yellow, or greenish in color may be produced by a prolonged cough.
  • Respiratory tract infections on a regular basis.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Loss of weight that was not expected (in later stages).
  • Increased fluid retention in the legs.

Exacerbations are also common in people with COPD, in which their symptoms get worse and last for at least a few days.


As with most chronic diseases, tobacco smoking is a major contributor to the development of COPD in the industrialized world. People who live in homes with inadequate ventilation and are regularly exposed to the fumes produced by cooking and heating with solid fuels are at an increased risk of getting COPD.

Only a small percentage of chronic smokers are diagnosed with COPD, however many smokers with a lengthy history of smoking may experience decreased lung function. Some smokers are at risk for developing lung problems that aren’t as well-known. Until a more complete examination is undertaken, they could be misdiagnosed as having COPD.

Risk factors

The following things increase your risk of developing COPD:

  • Tobacco smoke exposure is what causes this. When it comes to COPD, smoking cigarettes for an extended period of time is the most significant risk factor to consider. Risk increases with the number of years you smoke and the number of packs you smoke. Third-party exposure to substantial volumes of secondhand smoke is also a danger factor for pipe, cigar, and marijuana smokers.
  • Asthma sufferers. People with asthma, an inflamed and long-term illness of the airways, may be more likely to develop COPD. Asthma and smoking enhance the likelihood of developing COPD even further.
  • Dust and chemical inhalation as a result of one’s job. Lung irritation and inflammation can be caused by long-term exposure to chemical vapors, gases, and dusts in the work environment.
  • Exposure to exhaust fumes from a vehicle’s exhaust system. COPD is more common in underdeveloped countries where people are exposed to pollutants from cooking and heating fuel in poorly ventilated dwellings.
  • Some cases of COPD are caused by a rare genetic condition known as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. It is possible that certain smokers are genetically predisposed to developing the condition.


The following are just a few of the potential side effects of having COPD:

  • Infections of the lungs. Colds, flu, and pneumonia are more common in those with COPD. If you have a respiratory infection, it can be extremely difficult to breathe and could cause more lung tissue damage.
  • Injuries to the heart Heart disease, including a heart attack, can be increased by COPD for reasons that aren’t entirely understood.
  • Lung cancer Lung cancer is more likely to strike those with COPD.
  • Pulmonary artery hypertension. High blood pressure in the arteries leading to the lungs can be caused by COPD (pulmonary hypertension).
  • Depression. It’s possible that breathing difficulties will prevent you from engaging in activities that you normally love. Depression can also be exacerbated by dealing with a serious illness.


There are strategies to limit the growth of COPD, unlike certain other diseases, which have no obvious cause or path of prevention. Cigarette smoking is the primary risk factor for developing COPD, and the best strategy to avoid the disease is to never smoke or to stop smoking immediately.

Trying to quit smoking might be difficult if you’ve been a smoker for some time, especially if you’ve tried it more than once. However, keep trying to give up. It’s vital that you locate a program that can assist you in permanently quitting smoking. It’s your greatest hope of minimizing lung damage.

Another risk factor for COPD is chemical exposure in the workplace. Discuss the appropriate methods of protection, such as the use of respiratory protective equipment, with your supervisor if you are exposed to certain types of lung irritants.

Here are some things you can do to reduce COPD complications:

  • The risk of heart disease and lung cancer can be reduced if you give up smoking.
  • Vaccines against flu and pneumococcal pneumonia can lower your risk of infection or even prevent it.
  • If you’re feeling down or hopeless, or you suspect you could be depressed, make an appointment with your doctor.

Can Breathing Difficulties from COPD Affect Sleep?

COPD sufferers are more likely to suffer from insomnia. A person with COPD may wake frequently throughout the night because they have difficulty breathing at night. There may also be a decrease in overall sleep time and quality.

Additionally, several of the drugs prescribed to patients with COPD may exacerbate existing sleep issues. As a result, people with COPD may notice a reduction of their quality of sleep when using theophylline (Theo-24; Theochron; Elixophylline).

Those with COPD may also experience hypoxemia, or low oxygen levels in the blood, as a complication of the disease. Hypoxemia during the day is common in people with severe COPD, and worse daytime hypoxemia is linked to more bouts of sleep hypoxia. People who suffer from hypoxemia have a hard time sleeping in the REM period of sleep.

They become sleep deprived when they have sleep disturbances and don’t get enough sleep.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your ability to concentrate, remember information and make decisions suffers.

Why Can’t I Breathe at Night?

Over seventy-five percent of people with COPD say they have trouble sleeping at night because of their symptoms. Patients with COPD may notice that their symptoms intensify when they get into bed since breathing becomes more difficult while laying down.

Some COPD patients find it difficult to fall asleep because of their wheezing and coughing, so they try to sleep while sitting up in a chair. Sitting upright may help ease chest discomfort, but it might also make it more difficult to drift off to sleep. As a result of their inability to find a comfortable resting posture, people with COPD are more likely to experience insomnia.

How does COPD destroy the lungs?

Lung diseases collectively referred to as COPD. It includes a wide range of respiratory disorders, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Each of these ailments targets your lungs in a unique way.


Lung emphysema is characterized by the breakdown of the linings that separate the air sacs. There are more air sacs, although they are smaller in size. As a result, the overall surface area for gas exchange is reduced. The lungs also have a hard time delivering oxygen and exchanging carbon dioxide with the rest of the body.

Lung capacity is also reduced as a result of this damage. Due to the lack of lung capacity, you may not be able to do everyday duties. This will make you exhausted and breathless in a short period of time.


The lining of your airways becomes inflamed and irritated as a result of bronchitis. Constant exposure to bronchitis leads the lining to thicken and harden, making it difficult to breathe. When your airways are unable to clear themselves, extra mucus is likely to develop. Your airways will eventually harden and become clogged with mucus. This makes it harder to breathe. You may notice that you’re gasping for air more frequently than usual. Also, you may find that you tire more quickly.

The scale of breathlessness

Breathlessness can be measured in a variety of ways. A method known as the Modified Medical Research Council Dyspnea Scale is used by a large number of doctors (MMRC). These include BDI (baseline dyspnea index) and the oxygen cost diagram (OCD) (OCD).

MMRC is the most commonly used scale for measuring dyspnea in COPD because it is straightforward, easy to use, and a reliable indicator of the severity of the condition.

There are five statements to pick from when describing your breathlessness:

  1. “Exercise is the one thing that makes me gasp for air.”
  2. “I become out of breath when I walk up a modest slope or rush up the level.”
  3. Due to my breathlessness, I walk at a slower pace than other persons my age on the same level, or I have to stop and take a breather when walking at my own pace.
  4. When I walk more than 100 yards or spend a few minutes on the ground, I take a breather.
  5. In any case, “I can’t leave the house because I’m breathless.”

Doctors can use the information you provide to help them choose the best course of therapy and estimate how long a patient will live. Your doctor can also determine the severity of your breathing difficulty with a spirometry test in conjunction with a FEV1 lung function test.

12 Ways to Breathe Better With COPD

Chest tightness and difficulty breathing are among the most distressing signs of COPD (COPD). It can be frightening, even if it happens only once in a while, to feel breathless.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a catch-all name encompassing a slew of lung ailments, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Because of this, there is no cure for COPD. You can however take steps to alleviate your symptoms and prevent the disease from worsening.

A pulmonologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, David A. Beuther, MD, PhD, says that many people with COPD and their doctors are so focused on medication that they don’t really talk about lifestyle changes, such as breathing exercises for COPD and how to modify their behavior to improve breathing.

COPD symptoms can be alleviated and your energy levels boosted by making a few easy changes in your lifestyle.

Learn This Breathing Exercise for COPD: “Pursed Lip

Shortness of breath can be alleviated by using “pursed lip” breathing, according to the American Lung Association (ALA).

This is how you do it:

  • Relax your neck and shoulders by taking a seat.
  • Breathe in through your nose, keeping your mouth shut and filling your lungs to the brim.
  • Slowly and softly expel the air from your mouth for as long as you can while keeping your lips pursed. The exhalation should be longer than the inhalation.
  • Repeat at least three or four times

Once or twice daily, as well as whenever you’re struggling to catch your breath.

Drink Plenty of Water

Dr. Beuther stresses the need of being hydrated for everyone, but especially for those with COPD.

The mucus generated by the lungs might become thick, sticky, and difficult to cough up as a result of the condition. Water helps thin mucus and expel it more easily, which in turn helps with breathing, as Beuther points out.

The American Lung Association (ALA) advises persons with COPD to drink six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily at the very least.

The amount of water you can safely consume should be discussed with your physician. Taking in too much fluid might worsen problems such as heart failure in persons with COPD.

Sit (or Stand) Correctly

According to the Canadian Lung Association, slouching might make it more difficult to breathe. In contrast, straightening your back helps open the airways.

Try one of these postures if you’re having shortness of breath:

When Sitting

Keep your back straight and your feet flat on the ground. Then, bend your head and shoulders forward slightly. Keep your arms relaxed by resting them on your knees.

When Standing

Sit on a counter, chair, or wall with your back against it. Relax and slightly forward-lean your head and shoulders while keeping your back straight, with your feet slightly apart. Put your hands on your thighs and relax.

Wedge More Activity Into Your Day

The ability to breathe and the severity of COPD symptoms can be greatly improved by regular exercise.

It’s not their lung function that makes people with COPD more and more breathless; it’s that they’ve become deconditioned, says Beuther.

Exercising your respiratory muscles, improving your circulation, and enhancing your ability to utilize oxygen are all benefits that can be gained through exercising, according to a pulmonologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Dr. Ouellette says that it’s normal for physical exertion to produce some discomfort at initially, such as shortness of breath.

If you’re worried about hurting yourself, don’t be. Exercising will only make you better at what you’re attempting to do in the first place.

You should always check with your doctor before beginning an exercise plan, but a daily stroll can be a simple and safe way to begin.

Know — and Avoid — Your Triggers

The presence of dust, mold, and pet dander in the home or office can exacerbate the symptoms of COPD in people with allergies or asthma.

Reduce your exposure to airborne allergens, especially in your own house, and you’ll be able to breathe a little easier.

Dust coverings for your pillows and mattress, as well as the removal of your dogs from the bedroom, may be necessary, according to a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic Respiratory Institute in Ohio.

Use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to eliminate dust and other irritants from the air and run a dehumidifier if mold is a concern in your house, if possible.

Prioritize Sleep

You’ll feel and breathe better when you get more rest, Dr. Aboussouan tells me.

An investigation in the journal Chest, published in November of 2019, discovered a clear connection between deteriorating symptoms of COPD and insufficient sleep.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People with COPD may take their medications incorrectly if their memory is impaired due to fatigue.

A sleep problem like sleep apnea can make it difficult for persons with COPD to get a decent night’s sleep.

A doctor can help you figure out what’s preventing you from obtaining the recommended amount of sleep each night.

Eat Well

According to the ALA, food is the body’s primary source of energy for all processes, including breathing. Breathlessness can be alleviated and your energy levels boosted if you eat a balanced diet.

Maintaining a healthy weight is especially crucial for those with COPD, thus a well-balanced diet is essential.

Overweight people have to work harder to breathe because their hearts and lungs have to pump more blood. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the added weight may also require more oxygen.

In contrast, if you’re underweight, you may feel exhausted and weak. You may also be more susceptible to lung infections, which can be deadly.

If you need to lose or gain weight, the optimum diet for you will depend on your present weight.

Ask your doctor and a certified dietitian for advice on how you can improve your quality of life and relieve the symptoms of COPD by making dietary adjustments.

Get Your Annual Vaccines — and the COVID-19 Shot

According to Dr. Joseph Khabbaza, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, both the flu and pneumonia vaccinations are critical for persons with COPD.

“If you have COPD or another chronic lung condition, you should get the flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available,” he says.

A pneumococcal vaccine is also recommended because of the increased risk of pneumonia in patients with COPD. A vaccine is recommended for all adults 65 and over by the CDC, but if you have COPD, you can get it regardless of your age.

COVID-19 vaccination is essential for persons with COPD, says Michael Sims, MD, clinical director of the COPD Program at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, because they are at greater risk of getting serious disease from the virus.

For those with COPD, Dr. Sims points out, this vaccine not only reduces the risk of getting COVID-19, but it also helps prevent respiratory collapse and mortality, which is especially crucial.

Stamp Out Stress

People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more susceptible to the damaging effects of chronic stress. Anxiety arises as a result of having difficulty breathing. As the ALA explains, anxiety increases shortness of breath since it causes you to breathe faster.

There are many things in your life that might cause you to feel nervous, which in turn can exacerbate your COPD symptoms.

Think about what causes you tension and come up with strategies to alleviate it. You may need to work on strained personal relationships, deal with financial difficulties, or simply pace oneself properly and establish priorities.

A therapist or social worker can guide you through this process if you need it.

Relaxation practices such as breathing exercises, visualizing, meditation, and yoga can also be a good addition to your daily routine according to the American Library Association (ALA).

Stress can set off a vicious cycle of rising anxiety and shortness of breath. These activities assist slow your breathing.

Avoid Smoking — and Smokers

According to the WHO, the most important risk factors for developing and dying from COPD are smoking and being exposed to tobacco smoke.

Dr. Khabbaza adds that if you’re already a smoker, quitting is the most crucial thing you can do to alleviate your symptoms and enhance your health.

It might be difficult to stop smoking, so talk to your doctor about any programs they offer to help you. A helpful place to start is the CDC’s 800-QUIT-NOW hotline, which provides free counseling, quit programs, and educational resources.

One option is to check out the ALA’s Freedom From Smoking program, which is an online program that teaches you how to quit smoking in a seven-week clinic (either in person or online).

According to Aboussouan, people with COPD should also minimize exposure to third-hand smoke, which refers to the odor of smoke left behind on surfaces such as clothing, carpets, and cars, as well as secondhand smoke.

Use Your Inhaler Correctly

Inhaled medications, when used correctly and on a regular basis, help manage the symptoms of COPD and make it easier to breathe.

Inhalers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and each one necessitates a unique approach.

When it comes to COPD symptoms, Robert A. Wise, MD, head of the pulmonary function laboratory at the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center in Baltimore, advises that if you don’t take your medicine as prescribed, you could make things worse.

Dr. Wise recommends checking in with your doctor on a regular basis to make sure you’re using your inhaler correctly and getting the optimal dose of medicine into your lungs.

When someone’s condition worsens, it’s frequently not an issue of altering their prescription, but rather making sure they’re utilizing their inhaler correctly,” he says.

Increase Your COPD Knowledge

Beuther believes that learning about COPD and how the lungs work might help you better understand and manage your illness.

See whether your local hospital or respiratory center offers any kind of pulmonary rehabilitation services.

Free or low-cost lessons on good nutrition and exercise can be found to help you improve lung function and increase your energy levels.

For those with lung disease, the American Lung Association’s Better Breathers Club program is a great source of information and support.

Preserving lung function

Although COPD will not go away, there are things you may do to manage your shortness of breath. Use these measures to prevent dyspnea, limit the advancement of your COPD, and protect your lungs’ ability to breathe. To get the care you need, talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

Are Sleep Disorders Common in People with COPD?

Breathing patterns and oxygen levels in the blood are disrupted when you sleep if you suffer from a sleep breathing disorder. Numerous research have looked into sleep-disordered breathing in COPD patients, with mixed results on the number of people who have both.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which causes breathing pauses while you sleep, is often associated with COPD. Sudden awakenings and reductions in blood oxygen levels are common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, which is characterized by high carbon dioxide levels. “Overlap syndrome” is a term used to describe the more severe nighttime drops in blood oxygen levels seen in people with COPD and OSA co-occurring.

How Do I know if I have a Sleep Disorder and COPD?

As its name suggests, overlap syndrome can be difficult to identify from COPD or SDB alone because of the many symptoms shared by both conditions. Sudden awakenings characterized by gasping and choking, headaches upon waking, and excessive daytime sleepiness are among these symptoms. Experts, on the other hand, have discovered certain characteristics of COPD patients with SDB.

Doctors may order a sleep study if one or more of the following symptoms are present in a patient with COPD:

  • Snoring, gasping, or choking during the night.
  • Headache in the morning.
  • Excessive slumber during the day.
  • Obesity.
  • a decrease in daylight saturation of oxygen (hypoxemia).
  • Saturation of the midday atmosphere with carbon dioxide (hypercapnia).
  • Hypertension of the lungs.
  • Failure of the right heart.
  • Polycythemia vera (high concentration of red blood cells in your blood).
  • Prescriptions for opiates and hypnotics.
  • Type 2 diabetes, heart failure, or stroke in the family history.

Experts also point out that clinicians may ignore nocturnal symptoms in COPD patients, indicating that overlap syndrome is more widespread than previously thought. As a result, patients with COPD should notify their healthcare providers as soon as they notice symptoms at night and inquire if a sleep test is required.

How Do I Sleep With COPD?

With COPD, it can be particularly difficult to go off to sleep, especially if symptoms intensify at night. GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) and chest pains, which are common in COPD patients, can worsen while laying down. Propping your head up while you sleep can help alleviate chest pain and make you more comfortable.

Practice good sleep hygiene routines since COPD patients may have additional obstacles to getting a decent night’s rest. To get a good night’s sleep, follow these tips:

  • Avoid taking a sleep in the late afternoon and limit napping to no more than 30 minutes at a time. To recharge your batteries, take a short nap, but don’t overdo it.
  • In the late afternoon and evening, avoid eating or drinking anything. You don’t want to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom because you want your body to have time to digest.
  • It’s time to get going. Do at least some moderate exercise each day.
  • At least 30 minutes before going to sleep, turn off your phone, computer, and tablet.
  • Smoking is bad for your health! One of the finest things you can do for your health is to quit smoking, especially if you have COPD.

Are There Treatments for Sleep Affected by COPD?

COPD symptoms that affect sleep or overlap with sleep apnea can be treated with medications, and they are available. During sleep, experts advocate reducing hypoxemia (low blood oxygen) and hypercapnia (high carbon dioxide) as the primary goals of therapy for overlap syndrome.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a system that pumps in air to keep the airways open and prevent them from collapsing as you sleep. In the case of COPD patients with moderate to severe OSA, the first line of defense is the CPAP machine. Those with severe daytime hypoxemia should receive additional oxygen therapy.

Patients with COPD may also benefit from the use of medications to alleviate their chest pain and difficulty sleeping. All medications should be reviewed with your doctor, as they may affect your sleep in a positive or negative way.

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