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Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. There are two main types of sleep apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea and Central sleep apnea.

image showing person with open mouth and multiple images of symptoms of sleep apnea like snoring, gasping

Sleep Apnea Symptoms 

Comprehensively Understanding Symptoms of Sleep Apnea: An In-Depth Guide


Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax during sleep, causing the airway to narrow or close. This blocks oxygen from reaching the lungs, resulting in breathing pauses that can last 10 to 30 seconds or longer. These pauses may be accompanied by loud snoring or gasping noises as the sleeper struggles to breathe.

Central sleep apnea

Central sleep apnea (CSA) occurs when the brain fails to properly signal the muscles that control breathing. This results in lapses in breathing effort during sleep, even when the airway is open. People with CSA may make no sound at all as they briefly stop breathing.

Understanding the symptoms of sleep apnea is crucial for getting an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment. If left untreated, sleep apnea increases the risk for serious health issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

The key symptoms to recognise include loud snoring, observed breathing pauses during sleep, gasping/choking sensations at night, unexplained fatigue despite sufficient sleep, lack of energy during the day, morning headaches, and problems with memory and concentration.

Common sleep apnea symptoms


Loud, persistent snoring is one of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea. As air struggles to squeeze through narrowed airways, tissues in the throat vibrate and cause loud snorts, gasps, and snoring sounds. These noises can be loud enough to disturb a bed partner's sleep. Breathing pauses during sleep, called apneas, are another telltale sign. A pause can last for several seconds to a minute or longer and may occur frequently throughout the night. After an apnea, the brain triggers a brief awakening which leads to gasping noises as breathing resumes with a snort.

Secondary symptoms result from the cumulative effects of disrupted sleep and low oxygen levels. Morning headaches are very common due to oxygen deprivation and interrupted sleep cycles. People with sleep apnea often feel chronically fatigued and struggle with insomnia because their sleep is so restless. Daytime drowsiness and attention deficits frequently impair work performance and contribute to motor vehicle accidents for those with untreated sleep apnea.

Risk Factors


Obesity is a major risk factor because excess weight around the neck squeezes the airway. A neck circumference over 17 inches for men and 16 inches for women indicates increased risk. Structural factors like enlarged tonsils, a deviated septum, or a small jawbone also narrow the airway space.

Health Consequences


The repetitive stress of apneas strains the cardiovascular system leading to high blood pressure, arrhythmias, and other problems. The oxygen deprivation and surges of adrenaline also promote insulin resistance setting the stage for type 2 diabetes. Sleep apnea has also been linked with depression and cognitive decline.

Risk factors and causes

There are several risk factors that can increase one's likelihood of developing sleep apnea. Obesity is a major risk factor, as excess weight around the neck and throat can cause airway obstruction during sleep. Those with a neck circumference over 17 inches for men or 16 inches for women are at higher risk. Nasal congestion and obstruction from allergies or anatomical factors can also contribute to sleep apnea by making breathing more difficult.

Obesity and Anatomy

Obesity causes fat deposits around the upper airway, which can obstruct breathing during sleep. Additionally, those with smaller airways or a large tongue, uvula, or tonsils are predisposed to airway collapse while sleeping. Structural factors like a narrow jaw or receding chin can also obstruct the airway.

Age and Gender

Men over the age of 40 are at the highest risk of developing sleep apnea. Hormonal changes in women after menopause also increase their risk. Aging causes relaxation of the throat muscles, making airway obstruction more likely during sleep.

Other Lifestyle Factors

Alcohol and sedatives relax the throat muscles, increasing chances of airway blockage. Smoking causes inflammation in the upper airway. Lack of exercise can contribute to weight gain. Even sleeping position matters - sleeping on the back allows the tongue to fall back into the airway.


Having family members with sleep apnea increases your risk. Craniofacial structure and obesity tendencies can be inherited genetically.

In summary, sleep apnea risk involves lifestyle habits like diet, exercise, and sleep position as well as anatomical, hormonal, and genetic factors. Addressing modifiable risk factors can help prevent and treat sleep apnea in many cases.

Health consequences

Untreated sleep apnea can have serious health consequences. The most concerning risks are related to cardiovascular health. Repeated drops in blood oxygen levels and arousal from sleep put stress on the heart and blood vessels.

High blood pressure

Sleep apnea is strongly associated with high blood pressure (hypertension). Breathing pauses cause surges in blood pressure that occur repeatedly throughout the night, increasing the risk of developing hypertension over time. Treating sleep apnea has been shown to help reduce high blood pressure.

Heart disease and stroke

The oxygen deprivation and stress from sleep apnea also increase the likelihood of other cardiovascular diseases. These include an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), worsening heart failure, and atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in arteries). Sleep apnea sufferers have a 30% higher risk of heart attack and a nearly 3 times greater risk of stroke.

Other impacted conditions

In addition to cardiovascular disease, untreated sleep apnea can exacerbate other health issues like:

  • Diabetes - Poor sleep interferes with glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity
  • Depression - Sleep deprivation can worsen mood disorders
  • Cognitive impairment - Lack of restorative sleep reduces concentration, memory and decision-making abilities

Seeking treatment for sleep apnea provides extensive health benefits beyond just better sleep. It can prevent progression of related chronic illnesses. With proper management of this condition, patients often feel more energised and mentally sharp.



Diagnosing sleep apnea begins with recognizing the symptoms and risk factors. If loud snoring, daytime fatigue, or other common signs are present, it is important to discuss these issues with a doctor. The first step will likely involve screening questionnaires such as the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which asks patients to rate their level of daytime sleepiness in various situations. Scores above 10 indicate potential sleep apnea.

Sleep Studies

If screening questionnaires suggest sleep apnea, a sleep study will usually be recommended. Also known as a polysomnogram, a sleep study involves spending the night at a sleep center or hospital while breathing, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and brain waves are monitored. This test definitively diagnoses sleep apnea by recording the number of breathing pauses and oxygen level drops during sleep.

Home Sleep Tests

For some patients, home sleep apnea testing may be recommended instead of an in-lab sleep study. These simplified tests evaluate oxygen levels and breathing during sleep from the comfort of home. While not as comprehensive as a full polysomnogram, home sleep tests can effectively confirm sleep apnea at a lower cost.

Determining Severity

Once a sleep study or home sleep test confirms sleep apnea, the number of breathing abnormalities per hour determines the severity. Mild sleep apnea involves 5-14 events per hour; moderate is 15-29 per hour; and severe is 30 or more per hour. Severity level guides treatment recommendations.

Accurately diagnosing sleep apnea is crucial for developing an effective treatment plan to manage symptoms. Paying attention to red flags and undergoing testing provides the information needed to improve health and quality of life.

Treatment options


There are several effective treatment options available for managing sleep apnea, depending on the severity and type of apnea. The most common treatment is CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). This involves wearing a mask over the nose and/or mouth while sleeping, which is connected to a machine that provides a constant flow of pressurized air. This air flow keeps the airway open during sleep. While CPAP is highly effective for treating sleep apnea, some people have difficulty adjusting to sleeping with the mask and machine.

Other treatment options

Other options include:

  • Oral appliances - these devices fit inside the mouth like a sports mouth guard to keep the throat and airway open.
  • Surgery - this may be an option for some people to remove excess tissue in the throat or mouth that is contributing to airway obstruction.
  • Weight loss strategies - losing weight can help reduce sleep apnea severity, especially if obesity is a contributing factor.

Emerging therapies

In addition to standard treatments, research is underway into some emerging therapies including:

  • Sleep position therapy - avoiding sleeping on the back can help keep airways open for some people with sleep apnea.
  • The endocannabinoid system - compounds that interact with receptors in this system are being studied for their potential to reduce apnea events and improve oxygen levels during sleep.

Treatment for sleep apnea needs to be tailored to each individual based on the type and causes of their apnea. Consulting with a sleep specialist is important for determining the most suitable therapy. Treatment adherence and follow-up are also key for managing symptoms effectively.

Lifestyle changes and self-help


Making positive lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on managing sleep apnea symptoms. Two key areas to focus on are improving sleep hygiene and losing excess weight.

Incorporating Healthy Sleep Habits

Practicing good sleep hygiene involves establishing regular sleep-wake cycles, limiting naps, and optimizing the sleep environment. Some tips include:

  • Going to bed and waking up at consistent times, even on weekends
  • Making sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet
  • Avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol close to bedtime
  • Limiting exposure to screens before bed
  • Relaxing with a warm bath or light reading before sleep

Losing Weight to Reduce Sleep Apnea Severity

Since obesity is a major risk factor for sleep apnea, shedding excess pounds can lead to noticeable improvements. Even a 10-15% weight loss can open up airways and decrease apneic events for some patients. Tips for losing weight include:

  • Cutting back on processed foods and sugar
  • Increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, and lean protein
  • Staying active with regular cardio and strength training
  • Working with a nutritionist or doctor to create a customized weight loss plan

Avoiding Alcohol and Improving Sleep Position

Alcohol consumption relaxes throat muscles leading to increased blockages. It also fragments sleep. Avoiding alcohol for at least 4 hours before bed is recommended.

Sleeping on your side rather than back can also minimize apneic events in some patients. Using pillows or tennis balls sewn into the back of pajamas can train side sleeping.

Making lifestyle changes requires commitment, but can dramatically transform sleep apnea management and quality of life.

Supporting loved ones with sleep apnea


Having a loved one diagnosed with sleep apnea can be difficult, but providing support and understanding is vital. Here are some tips for being an encouragement to someone dealing with this condition:

Provide Empathy

Let your loved one know that you understand sleep apnea can significantly disrupt sleep and daily functioning. Recognize that symptoms like chronic fatigue, headaches, and mood changes can be frustrating to deal with. Offering empathy shows you care.

Educate Yourself

Take some time to learn about sleep apnea, including different treatment options. The more knowledge you gain, the better able you'll be to grasp what your loved one is going through. Understanding CPAP therapy, oral devices, and surgery can help you provide meaningful support.

Offer Practical Help

  • Remind them of doctor's appointments
  • Prepare healthy meals to aid weight loss efforts
  • Help create bedroom conditions ideal for sleep
  • Provide accountability for CPAP machine use

Provide Encouragement

Let your loved one know you believe in their ability to manage this disorder. Recognize small wins like weight loss achievements or more restful nights of sleep. Celebrate their commitment to treatment, even when they struggle. Your encouragement can inspire them to persist.

Prioritize Connection

Make spending meaningful time together a priority. Engage in open communication to foster trust and intimacy in the relationship. This provides invaluable emotional support and helps ensure treatment adherence. Let them know you'll be there no matter what.

Outlook and prognosis

The outlook for those with sleep apnea can significantly improve with proper adherence to recommended treatments. Consistently using CPAP therapy or oral appliances as prescribed has been shown to reduce the severity of sleep apnea symptoms over time. Additionally, losing weight, avoiding alcohol and sedatives, and sleeping on one's side can further alleviate apnea episodes.

Role of Treatment Adherence

Adhering to treatments like CPAP or oral appliances can be challenging at first. However, research indicates that motivation and support from loved ones increases long-term compliance. As symptoms improve with consistent use, individuals often feel more motivated to continue their therapy. This creates a positive cycle where adherence leads to better sleep, which provides motivation to keep using treatments.

Potential for Symptom Improvement

For those who diligently follow treatment plans for sleep apnea, the potential for dramatic improvement is high. Studies show that regular CPAP use decreases fatigue and sleepiness during the day. Blood oxygen levels also increase to healthier ranges at night. Over time, other conditions linked to sleep apnea like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes may also be better managed.

Prospects for Better Quality of Life

With proper management of sleep apnea, many patients report substantially increased quality of life. Restful sleep and reduced daytime fatigue allow individuals to be more productive at work. Relationships often improve as mood, concentration, and energy levels stabilize. The motivation this provides creates a self-perpetuating cycle of better health.

In summary, while living with sleep apnea presents challenges, the prognosis can be very good given the right treatments, motivation levels, and support system. As symptoms alleviate over time, outlook continues to improve.

Conclusion and summary

In conclusion, sleep apnea is a common yet serious sleep disorder characterized by breathing interruptions during sleep. As outlined throughout this guide, it has two main types - obstructive and central sleep apnea - with a variety of symptoms ranging from loud snoring to daytime fatigue and impaired concentration.

Sleep apnea increases the risk of potentially serious health consequences like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. It can impact other conditions too including worsening diabetes, depression, and cognitive issues. Therefore, increasing awareness and understanding of sleep apnea is crucial for early intervention.

Diagnosing sleep apnea requires an overnight sleep study to monitor breathing patterns. Once diagnosed, there are various treatment options available like CPAP machines, oral appliances, surgery, and lifestyle changes. Adhering closely to the recommended treatment is vital for managing symptoms successfully.

Making healthy lifestyle modifications like losing weight, improving sleep habits, avoiding alcohol, and sleeping on your side can also help in reducing sleep apnea severity. Having a strong support system is equally important for motivation and encouragement.

While sleep apnea is a lifelong condition, its symptoms and negative health impacts can be significantly improved through proper long-term management. By seeking professional advice and making proactive changes, individuals with sleep apnea as well as their loved ones can work towards regaining restful sleep and an enhanced quality of life.

If you or someone you know exhibits common sleep apnea symptoms, do not hesitate to get examined by a doctor. Catching and treating sleep apnea early on can make a big difference in health outcomes. This guide summarises all the key details, but personalised medical advice is essential for managing each unique case of sleep apnea.