9 Signs You May Have Sleep Apnea

Sleep problems affect more than your energy level and daytime functioning. Poor sleep can increase the risk of other health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

One of the most common sleep disorders is sleep apnea, which occurs when your breathing starts and stops during sleep. It's a serious health risk, affecting up to 18 million Americans, including children.

There are two basic kinds of sleep apnea, says sleep medicine specialist Colleen Lance, MD.

“Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common where your airway collapses or becomes obstructed during the night," she says. "Central sleep apnea most often happens in those with heart disease or neurological disorders.”

A number of factors that can increase your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea, including:

  • Being overweight
  • Your gender – men are more likely than women to be at risk
  • Older age
  • Family history
  • Having small airways or some physical abnormality in the nose, throat or other parts of the upper airway
  • Allergies or other conditions that cause congestion
  • Enlarged tonsils, which primarily affects children
  • Lifestyle choices such as smoking and medical conditions such as diabetes, stroke and/or heart failure

Central sleep apnea happens when the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the muscles to start breathing. While central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea, they do share some common signs and symptoms.

The Most Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

The nine most common signs of sleep apnea include:

  1. Loud snoring, which is more often seen in obstructive sleep apnea
  2. Times where your bed partner notices you stop breathing
  3. Waking abruptly with shortness of breath, which is more often seen in central sleep apnea
  4. Having a dry or sore throat when you awake
  5. Difficulty staying asleep
  6. More daytime sleepiness, which can lead to work-related mishaps or traffic accidents
  7. Problems with attention and concentration
  8. Getting up to urinate during the night
  9. Irritability

“The body wants to breathe more than anything else and does whatever it can to make sure your airway doesn’t close,” says Dr. Lance. “That means (people with sleep apnea are) not getting into the very deep stages of sleep where the airway relaxes and can close.”

Sleep apnea is seldom fatal by itself. However, it can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity and diabetes. Additionally, it is linked to worsening heart failure and irregular heartbeats. If you have sleep apnea, it can making treating chronic diseases complicated, too.

The best way to know if you have sleep apnea is to undergo a sleep pattern study as part of your initial work-up.

“A doctor should be involved,” Dr. Lance says. “You really don't know the severity of sleep apnea until you test for it.”

How to Treat Sleep Apnea

The gold standard for treating sleep apnea is the continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP) machine. The CPAP includes a mask or other device that fits over your nose or your nose and mouth. A tube connects the mask to the machine’s motor and blows air into the tube. This increases air pressure in your throat so your airway doesn't collapse when you breathe in.

To lessen the severity of sleep apnea, try:

  • Changing your sleep position so you're not laying on your back
  • Losing weight if you’re overweight
  • Avoiding alcohol or medications that make you sleepy
  • Trying nasal sprays or allergy medications to relieve congestion
  • Stopping smoking
  • Using a mouthpiece or dental appliance for mild cases, which can help keep your airways open
  • Undergoing surgery, although Dr. Lance stresses that avoiding this step if at all possible is a priority

“We are bombarded by social media and other communication outlets about many things, including sleep apnea,” Dr. Lance says. “That's a positive. This has led to many more people coming to us asking about their sleep quality concerns. It has increased medical knowledge and improved treatment and testing.”

Colleen Lance, MD, is a sleep medicine specialist and Director of the Sleep Center at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Lance or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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