Here’s the scenario — in the dead of night you wake up terrified, feeling as if you can’t catch your breath. Maybe you start coughing or maybe you jump out of bed, scaring your partner. After a few minutes, your heart rate slows and things begin to feel normal. What happened?

If you or your partner has gone through this, or something like it, it’s okay to be concerned. What’s important is to narrow down the possible causes so that you can get the treatment you need. Some possibilities like post-nasal drip are easily treatable while others may require long-term treatment.

Here are four possible causes for waking up in the middle of the night.

4 Reasons You Gasp for Air at Night | Wilmington, NC

Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety can affect the body in several strange ways, and one of them is sleep. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 70 percent of people with anxiety disorders have trouble falling asleep and trouble staying asleep. Many who have anxiety experience panic attacks, which can lead to rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, and sweating, but what many don’t know is that these can occur during sleep, as well.

Post-Nasal drip

The general route for mucus produced during the day is down the throat and into the stomach. However, if there is an excess of mucus caused by allergies or a cold, this could build in in a person’s throat causing breathing difficulties while awake or sleeping. Other symptoms include, bad breath, a sore throat, or a bad taste in the mouth.


Asthma is a condition that causes your airways to become constricted by mucus and inflammation, which can make breathing difficult and could trigger coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Like anxiety attacks, many people don’t know that you can experience asthma attacks while sleeping. There are many potential triggers for nocturnal (nighttime) asthma, such as allergens or keeping your room too cold at night. But it may also be related to your body’s natural daily cycles. 

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing during sleep. Generally, these pauses last only a few seconds but can occur multiple times a night (sometimes hundreds), causing blood oxygen levels to fluctuate dramatically. The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea or OSA, and in OSA, breathing is disrupted by a blockage of airflow.

Besides waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air, other symptoms of sleep apnea include, daytime drowsiness, morning headaches, frequent nighttime urination, and snoring. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, it’s advised that you see a doctor as soon as possible. When left untreated, sleep apnea can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and can even make it more difficult to lose weight.

While most treatments for OSA include a CPAP machine, your dentist can help you treat OSA without a breathing mask. To learn more about possible sleep apnea treatments, please call (910) 392-6060 for an appointment at Kuzma Advanced Dentistry in Wilmington, NC today.