More than 18 million American adults have sleep apnea, and many of them don’t even know it. Could you be one of them? Find out the signs of obstructive sleep apnea and what to do if you notice them.
What are symptoms of sleep apnea?
The main symptoms of sleep apnea are loud and frequent snoring, fatigue, and daytime sleepiness. Sleepiness is more extreme than just feeling tired, and some people with sleep apnea fall asleep waiting at a traffic signal while driving or while sitting at the dinner table. Other symptoms can include:
- Restless sleep
- Awakening with choking, gasping, or a smothering feeling
- Morning headaches, dry mouth, or sore throat
- Waking up feeling unrested and groggy
- Low energy, difficulty concentrating, memory impairment
- Irritability, moodiness
Many people with the condition don’t know they have it because they don’t have symptoms or don’t know that they snore. Some people think their symptoms are caused by something else, such as working too hard or getting older.
What is obstructive sleep apnea?
“Obstructive” sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea and the focus of this article. Having a narrow or blocked airway can cause a person’s breathing to stop or get very shallow while sleeping. Pauses in breathing can happen 30 times or more an hour, and can last from a few seconds to minutes. When a person begins breathing normally again it starts with a snort or choking sound.
That sounds scary. Is sleep apnea a serious condition?
Sleep apnea can be very serious. Because people with sleep apnea have excessive daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating, they are at higher risk for car crashes and work-related accidents. If sleep apnea is not treated, it can lead to anxiety and/or depression and high blood pressure. It can also increase the risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms, and stroke.
If I snore, does that mean I have sleep apnea?
No! Your snoring may be annoying to your bedmate, but it doesn’t mean you have sleep apnea. If you snore and have frequent daytime sleepiness and fatigue without a cause, then you may want to investigate further.
What increases the chance of having sleep apnea?
Your risk of sleep apnea is increased if you are overweight, male, have a family history, or have a small mouth or throat. Children with enlarged tonsils can also get it.
What can I do if I notice some of the symptoms?
Write down the symptoms you are having for 1 to 2 weeks, and bring this information to your doctor:
- Do you notice waking up at night?
- If you have a bedmate, does this person notice how often you snore or stop breathing at night?
- How tired do you feel during the day and how does it affect your ability to work or pay attention?
Your doctor will ask you questions, do an exam, and may suggest that you do a sleep study or use a home monitor. A sleep study involves an overnight stay at a special clinic where health professionals monitor your breathing and other vital signs while you sleep. A home monitor checks how often you pause or stop breathing or have less airflow when you sleep.
What happens if I am diagnosed with sleep apnea?
If you have it, it is important to get treatment. For mild sleep apnea, lifestyle changes such as losing weight, avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills, and sleeping on your side instead of your back may help relieve symptoms. Some very overweight people have reduced or cured their sleep apnea by losing weight. Wearing a mouthpiece, using a breathing device, or having surgery can treat sleep apnea in many people.
These articles are not a substitute for medical advice, and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise, or medication regimen.
Sleep Apnea, Medline Plus:
Sleep Apnea, National Sleep Foundation:
Patient Information: Sleep Apnea in Adults (Beyond the Basics), UpToDate:
Treating Sleep Apnea: A Review of the Research for Adults, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: