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What Is Sleep Apnea? 5 Facts You Should Know

By Adrienne Keller
If your breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, you may have a disorder known as sleep apnea. Find out more about the types, symptoms, and treatment of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes intermittent pauses in breathing while you sleep. Even though the condition is common, it often goes undiagnosed and untreated, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. This may be due to the fact that many of the signs of sleep apnea are very brief and occur during sleep. However, learning more about the disorder could increase your chances of receiving a pertinent diagnosis. Discover five facts that you should know about sleep apnea.

There are three main types of sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea, according to Mayo Clinic. This type of sleep apnea occurs when the throat muscles relax too much and interfere with your breathing.

Central sleep apnea happens when signals are not properly sent from the brain to the muscles that control breathing.

A third type of the condition, known as complex sleep apnea syndrome or mixed sleep apnea, has characteristics of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Anyone can get sleep apnea.

Children and adults of all ages can develop sleep apnea. Some people, however, are more at risk than others to develop the condition. Risk factors for sleep apnea include:

  • Being overweight
  • Having a large neck
  • Other anatomical factors such as large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Being middle-aged and older

Certain conditions increase your risk of sleep apnea.

In addition to the above risk factors, people with certain medical conditions are at a greater risk of developing sleep apnea. According to Mayo Clinic, conditions linked to a higher risk of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Hormonal disorders
  • Chronic lung disease such as asthma
  • A history of stroke

Additionally, “If sleep apnea is not treated, a person may develop high blood pressure, heart problems, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndromes from a lack of oxygen while sleeping,” Jenna Liphart Rhoads, PhD, RN, CNE, advisor at NurseTogether, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

The symptoms of each type of sleep apnea are similar.

Obstructive and central sleep apnea cause many of the same symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic. Some common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Breathing stoppages during sleep
  • Gasping for air while you sleep
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Having a headache in the morning
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Being excessively sleepy during the day
  • Trouble concentrating during the day
  • Being irritable

It can be difficult to recognize the symptoms of sleep apnea on your own. This is because some signs, such as episodes of breathing stoppages at night, may only be observed by another person. 

If you notice other signs, however, such as irritability and not feeling well-rested after you wake up, consult your doctor about your diagnosis and treatment options.

Sleep apnea can be treated.

Sleep apnea can cause serious health complications, so it is important to explore your treatment options if you're diagnosed with the disorder. Treatment can include the following:

  • Use of devices to help open up your blocked airway, such as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine or other oral devices
  • Lifestyle changes, including losing weight and quitting smoking
  • Treatment of allergies that make it difficult to breathe at night
  • Treatment of associated medical conditions that could be causing your sleep apnea
  • Use of supplemental oxygen while you sleep

In severe cases of sleep apnea, when the above options are not successful, surgery may be necessary.

“Someone should seek medical treatment if they are consistently waking in the morning feeling excessively fatigued or irritable, or with a pounding headache,” Liphart Rhoads explains.

“Sleep apnea is generally diagnosed following an evaluation of symptoms and a sleep study,” Liphart Rhoads adds. A sleep specialist can then make informed treatment recommendations.

Think you may have sleep apnea? You can start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.