Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Frequently Asked Questions

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Young woman snoring in bed

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea, which is when breathing temporarily stops during sleep. When something blocks, or obstructs, a person’s upper airway, it causes obstructive sleep apnea. Repeated interruptions of breathing for more than 10 seconds at a time is also considered obstructive sleep apnea.

Many people with the condition have anywhere from five to 30 or even more interruptions every hour and may not even realize they wake up each time to breathe. If you or your child display signs and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor might refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor.

Here are answers to some frequently asked obstructive sleep apnea questions.

What are obstructive sleep apnea causes and risk factors?

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a blocked airway. This may happen as a result of the throat muscles relaxing too much while you sleep. Sometimes it’s simply inheriting a narrow throat and thick neck, which can both increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea. Men are more likely than women to have obstructive sleep apnea. Other health conditions and lifestyles that can cause obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • A large tongue or neck, or a narrow throat
  • Diabetes or hypothyroidism, which is when thyroid hormone levels are too low
  • Excessive growth hormone, which leads abnormal growth
  • Excessive use of alcohol or sedatives

In children, common causes of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Severe overbite
  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids
  • Abnormally small lower jaw

What are obstructive sleep apnea symptoms?

Someone in your home, such as a sleeping partner or someone who lives with you, may be the first person to notice your sleep apnea symptoms. Your breathing becomes abnormally shallow or stops altogether for more than 10 seconds—sometimes up to a minute—and then begins again. You might wake up suddenly with a snort or gasping for air. Most people fall back to sleep without knowing they woke up, and the pattern begins again.

Snoring is a common symptom, but not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Excessive daytime sleepiness is common in adults but not in children. Other symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea in adults include:

  • Headaches in the morning
  • Problems concentrating and thinking

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea in children include:

  • Restless sleep
  • Problems concentrating and learning
  • Behavioral problems, such as hyperactivity and irritability
  • Mouth breathing
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Growth delays or failure to thrive
  • Bed wetting

If you or your child display these symptoms, your doctor might recommend a sleep study to help diagnose the problem. This requires an overnight stay at a hospital or sleep center.

What are common obstructive sleep apnea consequences?

People with undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea may not realize they wake up many times during the night because they weren’t breathing. But over time, obstructive sleep apnea can decrease people’s quality of life, affecting their performance at work or school, their memory, their sex drive, and their friendships. Excessive daytime sleepiness can sometimes be dangerous if it impairs a person’s ability to drive. Obstructive sleep apnea also increases a person’s risk of stroke, heart attack, irregular heartbeat, and high blood pressure. Severe sleep apnea in middle-age men increases their risk of premature death.

What are the options for obstructive sleep apnea treatment?

Treatment for obstructive sleep apnea begins with managing the risk factors you can control, such as maintaining a healthy weight, managing hypothyroidism or other health conditions, avoiding sleep aids, and limiting alcohol, particularly in the evening. Sleeping on your side or stomach rather than your back can also help.

Other methods used to manage obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): A machine with a face or nose mask that delivers pressurized air to keep the airways open during sleep. Many people are successfully treated with a CPAP machine, though some find it too uncomfortable to sleep.
  • Dental appliances: A dentist can provide an appliance to be worn only during sleep to help keep the person’s airway open. The device helps move your jaw forward to open the airway.
  • Upper airway stimulation: For people with moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea who find it difficult to use a CPAP machine, doctors may recommend a device that is implanted under the collarbone. The device stimulates the hypoglossal nerve, which pushes the jaw and tongue forward and helps the throat muscles remain open.
  • Surgery: If enlarged tonsils or adenoids are blocking the airway during sleep, doctors may recommend surgery to remove them. This surgery is commonly used for children. If other facial structures are blocking the airway, such as the shape of the jaw, surgery can correct the problem.

Identifying the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea and seeking an accurate diagnosis are the first steps in finding effective treatment so you can enjoy restful sleep and an improved quality of daily life.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jun 10
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