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What is sleep apnea?

Written by Dr. Shadi Zarei, Published December 2023

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that causes your breathing to stop and start repeatedly during sleep.
These breathing pauses are called 'apnea.' They usually last for 10 to 30 seconds and may happen many times throughout the night. These apneas can prevent your body from getting enough oxygen, causing symptoms and other health issues.

Sleep apnea has two main types:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea that happens when the throat muscle relaxes and blocks the upper airway. This blockage reduces or stops the flow of air to the lungs.

  • Central sleep apnea is the less common form of sleep apnea that occurs when the brain stops sending signals to the muscles that control breathing.


This handout focuses on obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea interrupts sleep and prevents you from having a good quality, restorative sleep, which can cause many symptoms.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

The most common symptoms of sleep apnea include:


  • Snoring while sleeping

  • Periodic gasping or choking during sleep

  • Episodes of apnea during sleep, where breathing stops for 10 to 30 seconds

  • Difficulty staying asleep

  • Waking up with a dry mouth

  • Morning headaches

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness

  • Irritability or mood changes

  • Poor concentration

  • Decreased sex drive


Many people with sleep apnea do not know they are snoring or gasping for air during sleep. Usually, their bed partner notices the symptoms.


Although snoring is a symptom of sleep apnea, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Nevertheless, if you snore or have any other symptoms listed above, see your doctor.


Effective treatments are available to improve sleep apnea, help you get good quality sleep, and reduce the risk of complications caused by sleep apnea (such as heart disease and stroke).

Who is at risk of developing sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common condition that can affect anyone. However, certain risk factors increase the chance of developing this condition, including:


  • Being overweight

  • Increased neck circumference

  • Having a narrowed airway

  • Being male

  • Being older

  • Having a family history of sleep apnea

  • Using substances (such as alcohol, sedatives, or tranquillizers)

  • Smoking

  • Having nasal congestion

  • Having other medical conditions (such as congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes)


If you have any symptoms listed in the previous section and have any of the risk factors listed above, see your doctor to get evaluated for sleep apnea.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you have sleep apnea, they may refer you to a sleep centre for further evaluation. At the sleep centre, a specialist might recommend an overnight sleep study called polysomnography (pol-ee-som-NOG-ruh-fee).


During polysomnography, various bodily functions are recorded as you sleep. These include brain waves, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, breathing patterns, and eye and leg movements. In some cases, a home sleep test might be provided instead.


The results of these sleep tests will help your doctor diagnose your sleep apnea and recommend the most suitable treatment.

What are the treatments for sleep apnea?

Your treatment depends on the cause of your sleep apnea and its severity. If another health condition (such as heart disease or nasal obstruction) is causing sleep apnea, treating those conditions will resolve sleep apnea.


If you have no other health conditions causing sleep apnea, your doctor may prescribe a CPAP machine (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine), which is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. A CPAP machine gently pushes air into your nose and keeps the throat open, helping you breathe continuously throughout your sleep.

The image showing a man wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. The machine contains a mask that is worn on the face with straps secruing it. The mask is attached to the CPAP machine via an air hose.

In addition to CPAP, you can do some lifestyle strategies to reduce sleep apnea symptoms, such as losing weight and exercising. These strategies not only improve your symptoms, but they can also lower your risks of heart disease and stroke.


If you are interested in learning more about these lifestyle strategies, click here.

What happens if sleep apnea is not treated?

As mentioned above, sleep apnea is a serious condition. If left untreated, it can lead to serious health issues, including:


  • High blood pressure (or hypertension)

  • Stroke

  • Heart attack

  • Depression

  • Impaired sexual function

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Work-related injuries

  • Motor vehicle collisions

When should you see a doctor?

If your bed partner notices that you snore, gasp for air, or stop breathing during sleep, see your doctor.


Also, if you have trouble staying asleep, feel tired and sleepy during the day, are more irritable than before, or wake up with a headache, see your doctor.


Sleep apnea is a serious condition, but it can be treated. With the proper treatment, your sleep quality improves, and your risk of serious complications may be reduced. So, make an appointment with your doctor today.


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