Sleeping Problems Linked to COPD

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2021 | Last updated: August 2023

Getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of our overall health. However, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can sometimes have trouble sleeping.

What sleep issues do people with COPD have?

Common sleeping problems in people who have COPD include:1,2

  • Trouble going to sleep at night
  • Trouble staying awake during the day
  • Waking up due to headaches or shortness of breath
  • Brief periods of not breathing during sleep (sleep apnea)
  • Nightmares

What are the effects of not getting enough sleep?

Not getting enough sleep can impact nearly every part of our lives. Symptoms of not getting enough sleep or sleeping problems include:2,3

  • Sleepiness during the daytime
  • Snoring, gasping, or choking during the night
  • Morning headaches
  • Feeling drowsy or confused when you wake up
  • Slower reaction time
  • Feeling irritable
  • Difficulty remembering things or solving problems

Some sleep problems can even worsen your COPD. Sleep apnea causes low oxygen and breathing difficulties on its own. Having COPD and sleep apnea can make COPD worse and cause exacerbations, or flare-ups.1

If you think you may have a sleeping problem, you should let your doctor know. A sleep evaluation can help figure out exactly what is causing the sleep disruption and the best way to treat it.1

How does COPD cause sleep issues?

There are several ways that having COPD may cause sleeping problems:1,2

  • Sleep apnea
  • COPD symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness
  • Low levels of oxygen during sleep
  • Medicines used to treat COPD symptoms
  • Anxiety and depression

Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person stops and starts breathing many times throughout the night. Many people with sleep apnea snore loudly as well. They often feel tired during the day because their quality of sleep at night is poor. Sleep apnea is more common in people with COPD, though doctors do not know exactly why.1

COPD symptoms like coughing or wheezing can be disruptive and wake people up at night. Because our breathing slows at night, people with COPD can have lower levels of oxygen during the night. Drops in oxygen levels can impact the quality of sleep and cause headaches and grogginess the next day.2,4

Some COPD medicines have the side effect of making it difficult for people to fall asleep. Drugs called bronchodilators can make breathing easier but can also impact your sleep.You should tell your doctor if you are having problems going to sleep while taking any kind of bronchodilator.2

Anxiety and depression can both cause insomnia, which is trouble going to sleep and staying asleep. Nightmares are also common in people with anxiety. Both anxiety and depression are more common in people with COPD. Treatment for anxiety or depression can help reduce these sleeping problems.5

What steps can you take to sleep better?

Following your COPD treatment plan can reduce symptoms and improve sleeping at night. Some people may also find that sleeping in an elevated position makes it easier to breathe. You can try this by propping your head up with extra pillows.2

If you think you may have sleep apnea, it is important to get a diagnosis from a sleep study. Sleep apnea is easy to manage with a special device called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.2

Other good sleep habits may help you sleep easier at night, such as:6

  • Try to exercise during the day
  • Do not eat or drink late at night
  • Try to keep any naps shorter than 30 minutes
  • Do not use electronics 30 minutes before bed

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