Sleep apnea symptoms and treatments

Most people at some time experience the effects of lack of sleep — that feeling of being groggy, irritable and maybe reaching for a coffee boost. Without enough good, quality sleep, it’s harder to function at our best. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder that interrupts our nightly rest. It happens when someone stops breathing repeatedly during the night — depriving the body and brain of oxygen. Did you know a person with sleep apnea may stop breathing hundreds of times in a single night?If left untreated, sleep apnea may increase the risk for serious health problems, like stroke, high blood pressure, heart conditions and diabetes.2

Types of sleep apnea

There are two types of sleep apnea. They may share the same symptoms, but may have different causes. Someone might even have both.3, 4

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: (More common.) This happens when your throat muscles relax, making the airway narrower. A smaller airway makes it more difficult to breathe in enough oxygen.
  • Central sleep apnea: This happens when your brain might not send the right signals to the muscles that control breathing.

Sleep apnea symptoms and risk factors

Maybe you've tried to get a good night’s rest when someone is snoring in the same room with you. Not only is it probably hard for you to sleep, it's a sign of a sleep disorder. But that’s not the only potential sign of a sleep disorder. Other common sleep apnea symptoms may include:5, 6

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Morning headaches
  • Waking up with a dry or sore throat
  • Waking up feeling like you’re choking or gasping for air
  • Feeling really tired during the day

Anyone at any age can have sleep apnea. And certain things put some people at greater risk. Here’s a list of risk factors that may increase someone’s chance of developing sleep apnea1:

  • Excess weight
  • Older age
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers
  • Smoking
  • Medical conditions, like congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s
  • Nasal blockage from a deviated septum, allergies or sinus problem

Treatment options and tips that may help living with sleep apnea

For mild sleep apnea, you may try a few lifestyle changes that may help you manage better. Things like:7, 8

  • Losing weight
  • Not consuming alcohol or sleeping pills
  • Using a position pillow (a pillow designed to relieve sleep apnea)
  • Changing your sleep position to help improve breathing (side sleeping might help)
  • Stop smoking

If you’re living with severe sleep apnea, you might need more help managing your condition. There are a handful of therapies and devices that may help you get better sleep. Here are just a few:9, 10

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): Perhaps the most common and effective, a CPAP machine blows air down your throat during the night to keep your airway open while you dream.
  • Dental devices: This might be a special sleep apnea mouth guard or retainer that keeps your tongue in place to keep your airway open.
  • Supplemental oxygen: Getting more oxygen while you sleep might help if you have central sleep apnea.

Typically, as a last resort, you may need surgery to fix sleep apnea. This might include tissue removal, jaw repositioning or implants. The most effective treatment option may depend on each person’s unique situation. Talk with your doctor to determine the best sleep apnea treatment for you and your lifestyle.

How can I get help if I’m concerned about sleep apnea?

Start with a visit with your primary care provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly exam). Based on your symptoms, they may likely refer you to a sleep clinic for some testing (either in clinic or at home). From there, a sleep specialist can help determine what steps may need to be taken to get you back to restful sleep.

Here’s a tip — if you share your bedroom with someone, bring that person along so they can describe your symptoms to the doctor. After all, since you're sleeping, you may not be aware of possible issues and they might be able to describe those better.