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Sleeping Problems Linked to COPD

What kinds of sleeping problems do people with COPD have?1,2

It is very common for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to have trouble getting a good night’s sleep. In fact, around half of people with COPD have sleep disruptions and trouble sleeping well. This is a problem because getting enough sleep is very important for all of the body’s functions to work well.

Common sleeping problems in people who have COPD include:

  • Trouble going to sleep
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Sleepiness during the daytime
  • Waking up due to headaches
  • Waking up due to shortness of breath
  • Brief periods of not breathing during sleep
  • Nightmares

What can cause sleeping problems for people with COPD?2

There are several ways that having COPD is linked to sleeping problems:

People with COPD who have sleeping problems should let their healthcare providers know. A sleep evaluation can help figure out exactly what is causing the sleep disruption and the best way to treat it.

What is sleep apnea?3

Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person stops breathing and then starts again after a short time. This can happen many times during the night. Many people with sleep apnea snore very loudly as well. They often feel tired during the day, because their quality of sleep at night is poor.

Sleep apnea is not caused by COPD, but having COPD can make the symptoms of sleep apnea worse. People with sleep apnea often sleep better using a special mask that prevents breathing from stopping and starting during the night.

How can COPD symptoms cause sleeping problems?2

These symptoms of COPD can wake a person up several times during the night:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath

Many people find it helpful to sleep with their heads elevated on 2 to 3 pillows. This allows the lungs to expand more fully. Medications can also be used to treat those symptoms by improving breathing function. When patients breathe better during the night, they sleep better because they do not keep waking up.

How can low oxygen levels in the blood cause sleeping problems?4

The way people breathe naturally changes during sleep. For people with COPD, this change in breathing can cause a low level of oxygen in the blood at different times during the night. This can make them have a poor quality of sleep, and feel tired during the day.

The lack of oxygen in the blood can cause many other problems, some of which are serious. The patient’s healthcare provider can carry out tests to find out if low levels of oxygen in the blood are causing the sleeping problems. If so, the patient might need to have oxygen therapy during the night.

How can COPD medications cause sleeping problems?2

Bronchodilators are medicines used to treat COPD symptoms. However, they can make it difficult to fall asleep. Patients should let their healthcare providers know if they are having problems going to sleep while taking any kind of bronchodilator.

People with COPD are usually not able to take sleeping pills. This is because sleeping pills can slow down nighttime breathing to a harmful extent for people with COPD.

How can anxiety and depression cause sleeping problems?5

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

Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: July 2015.
  1. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD). Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of COPD, 2014. Available at: [Accessed 16 January 2015.]
  2. American Thoracic Society / European Respiratory Society Task Force. Standards for the Diagnosis and Management of Patients with COPD [Internet]. Version 1.2. New York: American Thoracic Society; 2004 [updated 2005 September 8]. Available from: [Accessed 16 January 2015.]
  3. McNicholas WT, Verbraecken J, Marin J. Sleep disorders in COPD: the forgotten dimension. Eur Respir Rev. 2013 Sep 1;22(129):365-75.
  4. McNicholas WT. Impact of sleep in COPD. Chest. 2000 Feb;117(2 Suppl):48S-53S.
  5. Yohannes AM and Alexopoulos GS. Depression and anxiety in patients with COPD. Eur Respir Rev 2014; 23: 345–349