5 Things You Need to Know About Sleep Apnea

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man sleeping with mouth open

Sleep apnea is a medical condition in which you temporarily stop breathing, or breathe very shallowly, while you are asleep, often occurring repeatedly throughout the night. Sleep apnea affects close to 20 million Americans, but it remains undiagnosed in about 80% of cases. This is significant because left untreated, sleep apnea can affect your health and daily routine. Here are some important sleep apnea facts you should know.

1. There are different types of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea can occur for different reasons. There are three main categories:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: This results when the muscles of your airway relax and cause your throat to narrow, so that air can’t flow in and out. This is the most prevalent type of sleep apnea.

  • Central sleep apnea: This occurs when your brain does not properly signal your body to breathe as it should.

  • Mixed sleep apnea: This is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

During periods of not breathing, the levels of oxygen in your body may decrease while levels of carbon dioxide rise. This often triggers you to wake up and take a breath, but it may occur without you even realizing it.

5 Things You Didn't Know About Sleep Apnea

2. Snoring is not the only symptom of sleep apnea.

Though it’s possible to snore and not have sleep apnea, snoring is one of the most common symptoms. Other signs and symptoms include:

  • Waking up feeling like you’re gasping or choking for air

  • Feeling extremely tired throughout the day

  • Headache, dry mouth, or sore throat in the morning

  • Frequent awakening in the middle of the night

  • Difficulty focusing

If this sounds like something you’re going through, talk to your doctor.

3. Certain factors can place you more at risk for developing sleep apnea.

Anyone can experience sleep apnea, including children, but some things can make you more likely to be affected by this sleep disorder:

  • Older age

  • Being male

  • Obesity

  • Enlarged tonsils and adenoids

  • Narrow airway

  • Thick neck

  • Use of alcohol, sedatives, and cigarettes

  • Family history of sleep apnea

There are some risk factors you can’t do anything about, like your sex or age, but others are considered modifiable, meaning you can change them. For example, losing weight, quitting smoking, or avoiding alcohol may help improve sleep apnea.

4. Your health and safety can be impacted by sleep apnea.

If the oxygen levels in your body drop as a result of sleep apnea, it can make your heart work harder and affect your nervous system. Serious complications can result, especially if your sleep apnea goes untreated. In terms of your cardiovascular system, this may lead to high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, and stroke. Your risk of diabetes increases as well.

The fatigue associated with sleep apnea can carry into your daily life. You may have a hard time completing tasks or functioning at work. You may find yourself making mistakes more frequently. Studies even suggest people with obstructive sleep apnea have a 2.5 times greater risk of being involved in a car accident.

5. Your doctor can help you find which sleep apnea treatment will work best for you.

In addition to making healthy lifestyle changes as discussed, there are several treatment options available for sleep apnea. Depending on the cause and severity, your doctor can guide you to the right choice. Some common sleep apnea treatments include:

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): This is a machine that uses pressurized air, often delivered via a mask placed over your nose, that helps keep your airway open when you sleep. It may take some getting used to, but CPAP is often a highly effective treatment.

  • Dental devices: These are appliances you place in your mouth while you sleep. By repositioning your jaw and your tongue, it maintains an open airway. A dentist can properly fit you for one of these devices.

  • Surgery: Different surgical options can be used to fix what’s causing the obstruction while you sleep. For example, removing large tonsils and adenoids or fixing a deviated septum, off-center cartilage between your nostrils, can help. Other types of surgery can remove excess tissue from the throat or correct the placement of your jaw to enlarge your airway.

  • Implants: Another type of surgical procedure places in an implant in your body that stimulates the muscles in your airway or the nerves in your tongue to keep your airway open during sleep.

If you think you might have sleep apnea, or your sleep partner reports loud snoring or pauses in your breathing, make an appointment with your doctor. In addition to a medical history and physical exam, you may be referred for a sleep study, which may sometimes be done at home, to monitor your breathing patterns, heart rate, brain activity, and oxygen levels while you sleep. This will allow your doctor to make a proper diagnosis and get you on the road to treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Mar 2

  1. Patient education: Sleep apnea in adults (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/sleep-apnea-in-adults-beyond-the-basics?view=print

  2. Risk of Motor Vehicle Accidents is Higher in People With Sleep Apnea. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. https://aasm.org/risk-of-motor-vehicle-accidents-is-higher-in-people-with-sleep-apnea/

  3. Sleep Apnea. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20377631

  4. Sleep Apnea. Medline Plus. https://medlineplus.gov/sleepapnea.html

  5. Sleep Apnea. National Lung, Heart, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-apnea#Treatment

  6. Sleep Apnea Information for Individuals. American Sleep Apnea Association. https://www.sleepapnea.org/learn/sleep-apnea/

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