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What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that happens when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night.

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night’s sleep, you might have sleep apnea.

The main types of sleep apnea are:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea, is the more common form that occurs when throat muscles relax
  • Central sleep apnea, occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea

If you think you might have sleep apnea, see your doctor. Treatment can ease your symptoms and might help prevent heart problems and other complications.

Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apnea overlap, sometimes making it difficult to determine which type you have. The most common signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Episodes in which you stop breathing during sleep — which would be reported by another person
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Awakening with a dry mouth
  • Morning headache
  • Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
  • Difficulty paying attention while awake
  • Irritability

When to see a doctor

Loud snoring can indicate a potentially serious problem, but not everyone who has sleep apnea snores. Talk to your doctor if you have signs or symptoms of sleep apnea. Ask your doctor about any sleep problem that leaves you fatigued, sleepy, and irritable.

What causes sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses during sleep. Central sleep apnea is usually observed in patients with central nervous system dysfunction, such as following a stroke, or in patients with neuromuscular diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease). It is also common in patients with heart failure and other forms of heart, kidney or lung disease.

Risk factors

Sleep disorders can affect anyone, even children. But certain factors increase your risk.

Obstructive sleep apnea

Factors that increase the risk of this form of sleep apnea include:

Excess weight, Neck circumference, narrowed airway, Being male, Being older, Family history, Use of alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers, Smoking, Nasal congestion, Medical conditions.

Central sleep apnea

Risk factors for this form of sleep apnea include:

Being older, Being male, Heart disorders, Using narcotic pain medications, Stroke.

Complications

Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition. Complications can include:

  • Daytime fatigue. The repeated awakenings associated with sleep apnea make normal, restorative sleep impossible, making severe daytime drowsiness, fatigue and irritability likely.
  • High blood pressure or heart problems. Sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that occur during sleep apnea increase blood pressure and strain the cardiovascular system. Having obstructive sleep apnea increases your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Type 2 diabetes. Having sleep apnea increases your risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
  • Metabolic syndrome. This disorder, which includes high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood sugar, and an increased waist circumference, is linked to a higher risk of heart disease.
  • Complications with medications and surgery. Obstructive sleep apnea is also a concern with certain medications and general anesthesia.
  • Liver problems. People with sleep apnea are more likely to have abnormal results on liver function tests, and their livers are more likely to show signs of scarring (nonalcoholic fatty liver disease).
  • Sleep-deprived partners. Loud snoring can keep anyone who sleeps near you from getting good rest. It’s not uncommon for a partner to have to go to another room, or even to another floor of the house, to be able to sleep.
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