February 19th, 2009
09:00 AM ET

Why do I awaken with shortness of breath?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers’ questions. Here’s a question for Dr. Gupta.

Asked by Lucinda, Manhattan, Kansas

"I wake up several times a night with shortness of breath. This happens almost every hour during the night. I don't sleep on my back. What could this be?"


First of all, without knowing your full health history, I can’t make a diagnosis. But, Lucinda, let me say right off the bat that you should probably make an appointment with your doctor right away. And, let me tell you why.  From what you’ve described, it appears you may be experiencing something known as paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea, or PND for short.

When a person suffers PND, he or she begins to experience shortness of breath several hours after going to bed. It then strikes suddenly and frequently during sleep, causing a person to wake up. Others experience shortness of breath only when they lie down on their back. This is known as orthopnea.

Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea is an abnormal condition that warrants some investigation. It can be a frequent symptom of a serious cardiovascular and respiratory problem. Again, you should make an appointment with your health-care provider as soon as possible to be evaluated, and if anybody is reading this with similar symptoms here are a few things to look for.

Before your appointment, begin writing down how often your are waking up experiencing shortness of breath, how long the attacks last, whether you have associated swelling in your feet and legs and the positions you are sleeping when it occurs. Also track what provides relief, if anything, for example, sleeping slightly propped up with pillows.

Bottom line, Lucinda, is these symptoms are your body’s way of alerting you something may be wrong. Being evaluated by your doctor is your best bet.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.