Published on May 10, 2024 at 8:00 / Updated on May 25, 2024 at 8:00

Sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by numerous breathing interruptions during sleep. There are several types, the most common being obstructive sleep apnea. The information in this fact sheet primarily concerns this form of the disorder.

Individuals with sleep apnea can stop breathing for more than 10 seconds and up to 30 times per hour while asleep. These breathing interruptions significantly disrupt sleep and can have serious health consequences.

A person with sleep apnea may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Restless sleep (frequent waking)
  • Night sweats
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Snoring
  • Gastric reflux
  • Headaches
  • Decreased concentration and alertness during the day
  • Drowsiness during the day
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to long-term consequences such as the following:

  • Increased risk of:
    • Diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease
    • Depression and anxiety
    • Road and workplace accidents
  • Professional and personal difficulties

Causes and triggers

Sleep apnea can be caused by an obstruction of the airways during sleep. It can also stem directly from the brain. This occurs when your brain doesn't send proper signals to your lungs to remind them to breathe while you sleep.

Below are some of the factors that increase the risk of developing sleep apnea or worsen its symptoms:

  • Obesity
  • Your face shape and the size of your tonsils (glands in the back of the throat)
  • Having a wide neck
  • Your age (being over 50)
  • Being male
  • Use of tobacco, alcohol, and sedatives
  • Having respiratory allergies (e.g., seasonal allergies)
  • Heredity (i.e., having an immediate family member who has been diagnosed with sleep apnea)

Treatment

If diagnosed with sleep apnea, you'll be presented with treatment options. In general, treatment must be continued long-term to prevent the disorder from reoccurring. Your treatment may include the following:

  • Using a positive pressure machine at night (e.g., a CPAP)
  • Wearing a mouth brace at night
  • Surgery

Certain lifestyle changes can help improve sleep apnea symptoms. Examples include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Not drinking alcohol or taking sedatives
  • Treating nasal congestion and allergies
  • Sleeping on your side
  • Maintaining good sleep habits:
    • Keeping a regular sleep schedule
    • Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night
    • Avoiding caffeine within several hours of bedtime

When should I see a health care professional?

Speak with your health care provider if you experience any of the symptoms associated with sleep apnea.

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