Identifying sleep apnea

Living with sleep apnea

Many people living with sleep apnea may not realize they their breathing is being interrupted while they sleep.  Often family members might notice the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea first.  If left untreated, sleep apnea can increase the risk of developing other life threatening heath conditions such as hypertension, stroke, and heart disease.

What is sleep apnea?

When someone has sleep apnea, their breathing stops or becomes shallow while sleeping.  In adults, apnea is considered significant when these pauses in breathing last 10 seconds or longer and occur more that 5 to 15 or more times an hour. 

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea.  This type is caused by the inability to move enough air through the mouth and nose into the lungs due to complete or partial blockage in the upper airways during sleep.  When breathing resumes, it is often accompanied by a gasp, snort, body jerk, or an arousal.    

Symptoms of sleep apnea

Symptoms of sleep apnea don’t just affect the quality of sleep, symptoms can present themselves at the start of the day and can lurk until bedtime comes around again.  

Nighttime symptoms of sleep apnea can include 

  • Night sweats
  • Restlessness while sleeping 
  • Snoring
  • Awaking with sudden sensation of gasping or choking 

In the morning, individuals with sleep apnea may have

  • Dry or sore mouth upon awakening
  • Headaches when they first wake up 
  • Difficulty getting up

The symptoms of sleep apnea don’t end in the mornings. 

During the day sleep apnea can cause

  • Fatigue 
  • Forgetfulness 
  • Depression 
  • Irritability

Who's at risk for developing sleep apnea?

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute more than 12 million people in the United States suffers from sleep apnea.  Those who are overweight are at a greater risk to develop the disorder.  Men are much more likely to develop the disorder than premenopausal women.  Someone with a family history of sleep apnea may also more likely to develop the disorder. 

Children and sleep apnea

Children can also develop sleep apnea, often as a result of enlarged adenoids and tonsils.  As with adults, when the child’s weight increases significantly, so does the chances of developing sleep apnea.   

Do you have sleep apnea?

Most frequently, obstructive sleep apnea is presented in overweight individuals who snore loudly, suffer from insomnia and daytime sleepiness (although in children sleepiness is often replaced by behavioral problems as a typical complaint). 

Diagnosing and treating sleep apnea

In these cases, referral to a sleep laboratory for a formal diagnosis should be considered.  In the laboratory patients are monitored throughout their normal sleeping period and the number of apneas is counted.  If a significant number of apneas are recorded, adult patients are routinely treated in the laboratory with continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP; a mask that goes over the nose and/or mouth, which is attached to a machine that delivers a gentle column of air that acts as a stint to keep the airways open). 

Other therapies include tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy in children, oral devices (form mild to moderate sleep apnea), surgeries (including a procedure called an uvulopalatopharyngoplasty), and in life threatening cases a tracheostomy.

Why should you treat sleep apnea?

If sleep apnea is left untreated it can lead to the increased risk of high blood pressure, which can contribute to the risk for stroke, heart attack or heart failure.  Not only is health compromised, but so is safety.  As sleep apnea often disrupts sleep it can lead to severe sleepiness which can raise the risk for work-related or motor vehicle accidents.

If you think you or a loved one has sleep apnea or for more information, schedule an appointment with your medical provider to understand your options. 

Last reviewed: 
June 2017

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