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Sleep apnea: What you need to know

Feeling exhausted all the time? The culprit might be sleep apnea, a common—though often undiagnosed—sleep disorder.

Sleep apnea is a disorder with serious health consequences in which breathing during sleep is interrupted briefly and repeatedly.

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) estimates that 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. Many of these people haven't been diagnosed with the condition.

Here's what you need to know about sleep apnea and its damaging effects, as well as information about who is at risk and when to seek medical attention.

What is sleep apnea?

The most common form of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea. With obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles in the back of the throat relax during sleep allowing the airway to collapse and partially or completely cut off the flow of air. Breathing stops for 10 seconds or more. Desperate for oxygen, the brain awakens the sleeper just enough so that the airway muscles tighten and breathing is restored, often with a loud gasp or snort. Although sleep apnea sufferers may never realize it, this cycle repeats throughout the night.

Another less common form of sleep apnea is called central sleep apnea. With central sleep apnea, brief breathing disruptions occur when the brain fails to send the right signal to the muscles that control breathing. Typically, central sleep apnea doesn't cause the snoring associated with obstructive sleep apnea.

The information that follows focuses on obstructive sleep apnea.

What are the effects of sleep apnea?

According to the NSF and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the frequent awakenings caused by sleep apnea not only result in excessive sleepiness but can lead to a range of significant health problems, including:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Irregular heartbeats.
  • Heart attacks.
  • Stroke.

People who have untreated sleep apnea may fall asleep at inappropriate—and dangerous—times, such as while driving, according to NINDS.

Who is at risk for sleep apnea?

Anyone (including children) can get sleep apnea, but there are certain factors that increase a person's risk. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the NSF, these include:

Weight. Being overweight increases the risk of sleep apnea.

Lifestyle. Smoking, drinking alcohol and the use of sedatives can increase the risk and severity of sleep apnea.

Age. The risk increases as you get older.

Sex. Men are more likely than women to experience sleep apnea.

Anatomy. People with smaller airways in their nose, mouth or throat, or who have a thicker neck, are at greater risk for sleep apnea.

Family history. Sleep apnea risk is also higher among those with a family history of the condition.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

People can have sleep apnea without knowing it, so it's important to be aware of the following sleep apnea symptoms:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, which can lead to falling asleep unexpectedly.
  • Snoring.
  • Morning headaches.
  • Dry mouth or sore throat in the morning.
  • Mood or personality changes.
  • Difficulty with mental tasks like learning, concentrating and remembering.
  • Sexual dysfunction.

I suspect I might have sleep apnea—what should I do?

Talk to your doctor. He or she may suggest a sleep study to determine what, if any, sleep apnea you're experiencing. The good news is that there are treatments for sleep apnea, and they can be life-changing. Your doctor will be able to explain your options and help you choose a treatment plan that's right for you.

You can learn more about treatment options for sleep apnea.

reviewed 8/30/2019

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