If you’ve ever experienced wheezing when lying down, you’re not alone. There are a variety of medical conditions that can lead to shortness of breath or wheezing at night.
Wheezing when lying down can be a sign of a medical condition such as asthma. It can also be caused by other ailments such as obesity, anxiety, COPD, sleep apnea, and even heart failure.
This article will explore the various causes of wheezing when lying down, whether at night or during the day. You’ll also learn a few tips to ease your symptoms to get a good night’s sleep.
What is Wheezing?
Wheezing is a type of breathing abnormality that causes a high-pitched or coarse sound to emit as you breathe in or out. Wheezing is not the same as shortness of breath, although shortness of breath coincides with wheezing.
Wheezing is caused by a blockage in the airways that lead to the lungs. These blockages can constrict breathing, and they can occur in the upper respiratory tract or deep in the respiratory tract.
High-pitched wheezing is most commonly associated with a blockage in the lower part of the respiratory tract, while constriction of blockage of the upper airway leads to coarse sounds.
General Causes of Wheezing
There are a variety of causes of wheezing. Both adults and infants are susceptible to wheezing, and anyone at any age can develop this condition. Wheezing is usually a side effect of another ailment, which could go away on its own or be life-threatening.
Asthma is a condition that affects around 1 in 12 people, according to the CDC. This is a condition in which people begin to cough, wheeze, or have shortness of breath due to inflamed airways, also known as bronchi. Poorly controlled asthma can lead to wheezing when lying down and wheezing at night.
Allergies, including those of seasonal pollens, mites, dust, and food, can also lead to wheezing. When the body produces an immune response to these allergens, this leads to inflammation which can also lead to wheezing.
In fact, in a condition known as anaphylaxis, the body can go into shock and lead to a severely constricted airway. This is an emergency, whether it happens during the day or nighttime. People undergoing anaphylaxis will typically need emergency treatment and medication such as epinephrine.
Bronchitis is a condition caused by lifestyle choices, such as smoking cigarettes or by a virus or bacteria. Chronic bronchitis and acute bronchitis lead to inflammation of the bronchi in the lungs.
In addition, people with bronchitis might also suffer from symptoms such as:
- Coughing with sputum or mucus
Bronchitis is somewhat severe, mainly because it can turn from an acute to a chronic condition. People with bronchitis must be treated by a professional if they notice their wheezing or cough is getting progressively worse or not going away. This could be a sign of COPD.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of diseases that includes emphysema and bronchitis.
Emphysema is a condition in which the alveoli, or air sacs, in the lungs rupture, leading to chronic shortness of breath. Excessive mucus and trouble breathing while lying down are also common with COPD.
People with COPD must be treated carefully by a doctor. They can be prescribed medications similar to asthma medications, such as albuterol, to help improve lung functioning and reduce wheezing. They might also be told to change their lifestyle by quitting smoking.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is another potential cause of wheezing at night. GERD is a condition that is characterized by stomach bile or acid moving into the esophagus. While this is a digestive issue, GERD symptoms can worsen at night or when lying down.
As more stomach acid particles are absorbed into the food pipe, this leads to wheezing when lying down, especially at night time. This condition is also known as reflux-related asthma.
Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can no longer supply blood adequately to the rest of the body. Unlike a heart attack, heart failure is a chronic condition that progresses over time.
It can cause symptoms of asthma, coughing, and wheezing. Wheezing is usually due to fluid accumulation in the lungs. Heart failure can also make it difficult for people to do simple activities such as walking up the stairs or carrying groceries.
Pneumonia is a common condition affecting around 1 million adults in the United States every year. Sadly, it is also the world’s leading cause of death in children under five years old.
Pneumonia is an acute condition in which the lungs fill with fluid. This is usually caused by a viral or another type of infection. It can also be caused by a bacterial infection. However, antibiotics might not be enough to get rid of some strains of pneumonia-causing bacteria.
What Causes Wheezing When Lying Down?
All of the above-mentioned conditions can cause wheezing when lying down; however, some other causes include:
- Anxiety: If you are prone to anxiety or have panic attacks, you might begin to hyperventilate or breathe rapidly due to panic. Hyperventilation can mimic the symptoms of shortness of breath and wheezing when lying down. In addition, anxiety can also trigger asthma attacks.
- Lung cancer: This is a type of cancer that leads to tumors in the tissue of the lungs. Lung cancer can also lead to wheezing when lying down, in addition to shortness of breath during the day or night time. This is a serious condition that must be treated by medical professionals.
- Vocal cord dysfunction (VCD): This is a type of dysfunction that affects people of all ages. It is caused by the vocal cords closing when inhaling and can lead to wheezing when lying down or at rest.
How to Stop Wheezing When Lying Down
First and foremost, it’s important to visit your doctor if you experience wheezing when lying down.
Your doctor will provide you with medications to help improve your breathing while lying down. Such medications can include:
- Albuterol inhalers
- Medications to get rid of pneumonia
- Medications such as anti-anxiety drugs
- Steroids to control allergies or asthma
- Medications and lifestyle changes to help control conditions like GERD
- Medications for heart failure
It will take some time to find a new sleeping adjustment to help improve your wheezing at night time. Tell your doctor about any sleeping positions that improve your wheezing when lying down or that make it worse.
What Causes Wheezing at Night?
Wheezing at night can be caused by all the conditions mentioned above. However, wheezing at night while sleeping may also be caused by obesity and sleep apnea.
For overweight people, certain sleeping positions can lead to trouble breathing at night. Obesity can also lead to fat deposits in the upper respiratory tract that narrow the airway.
This can lead to obstructive sleep apnea, which causes wheezing when lying down or wheezing at night, fatigue in the morning, and high blood pressure, among other issues.
How to Stop Wheezing at Night
If you suffer from sleep apnea, you will need to take a sleep study test that measures the amount of oxygen you take in at night. This type of study is done in a lab under the supervision of medical professionals.
If you do have sleep apnea and wheezing at night, a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machine can be used to help you breathe easier at night time and keep air flowing in and out of your lungs.
Some other tips to help you breathe better at night include:
- Medications: Take all of your medications for asthma and allergies. Well-controlled asthma and allergies will prevent wheezing at night time and nocturnal asthma.
- Diet: Avoid heavy meals if you have GERD before going to bed.
- Seek help: Tell your doctor about wheezing at night so they can prescribe medications or other treatment options.
What is Orthopnea?
Orthopnea is defined as shortness of breath when lying down. However, it does not necessarily mean wheezing at night time, which is caused by an obstructed airway.
Orthopnea can be caused by medical conditions such as COPD, asthma, pneumonia, anxiety, obesity, and VOCD, among others.
Why is Wheezing Worse at Night?
Some people might find their wheezing worse at night due to the position of their airways. In addition, wheezing might also be worse at night if you have sleep apnea since you aren’t aware of your breathing becoming obstructed.
Conclusion: When to See a Doctor?
If you have trouble breathing or wheezing, it’s always best to visit a doctor. Your doctor will conduct a medical exam and laboratory tests to ensure that your symptoms aren’t caused by a more severe issue, such as lung cancer or heart failure.
Because wheezing when lying down and wheezing at night can be caused by various illnesses, it’s essential to get help from your doctor as soon as possible. Thanks for reading, and, as always, breathe easy, my friend.
John Landry, BS, RRT
John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.
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