Sleep apnea - Symptoms and causes (2023)


Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night's sleep, you might have sleep apnea.

The main types of sleep apnea are:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is the more common form that occurs when throat muscles relax and block the flow of air into the lungs
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA), which occurs when the brain doesn't send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing
  • Treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, also known as complex sleep apnea, which happens when someone has OSA — diagnosed with a sleep study — that converts to CSA when receiving therapy for OSA

If you think you might have sleep apnea, see your health care provider. Treatment can ease your symptoms and might help prevent heart problems and other complications.


The symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas overlap, sometimes making it difficult to determine which type you have. The most common symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas include:

  • Loud snoring.
  • Episodes in which you stop breathing during sleep — which would be reported by another person.
  • Gasping for air during sleep.
  • Awakening with a dry mouth.
  • Morning headache.
  • Difficulty staying asleep, known as insomnia.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, known as hypersomnia.
  • Difficulty paying attention while awake.
  • Irritability.

When to see a doctor

Loud snoring can indicate a potentially serious problem, but not everyone who has sleep apnea snores. Talk to your health care provider if you have symptoms of sleep apnea. Ask your provider about any sleep problem that leaves you fatigued, sleepy and irritable.

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Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea

Sleep apnea - Symptoms and causes (1)

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles that support the soft tissues in your throat, such as your tongue and soft palate, temporarily relax. When these muscles relax, your airway is narrowed or closed, and breathing is momentarily cut off.

This type of sleep apnea happens when the muscles in the back of the throat relax. These muscles support the soft palate, the triangular piece of tissue hanging from the soft palate called the uvula, the tonsils, the side walls of the throat and the tongue.

When the muscles relax, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in. You can't get enough air, which can lower the oxygen level in your blood. Your brain senses that you can't breathe, and briefly wakes you so that you can reopen your airway. This awakening is usually so brief that you don't remember it.

(Video) Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms, Tests & Treatments

You might snort, choke or gasp. This pattern can repeat itself 5 to 30 times or more each hour, all night. This makes it hard to reach the deep, restful phases of sleep.

Central sleep apnea

This less common form of sleep apnea occurs when your brain fails to send signals to your breathing muscles. This means that you make no effort to breathe for a short period. You might awaken with shortness of breath or have a difficult time getting to sleep or staying asleep.

Risk factors

Sleep apnea can affect anyone, even children. But certain factors increase your risk.

Obstructive sleep apnea

Factors that increase the risk of this form of sleep apnea include:

  • Excess weight. Obesity greatly increases the risk of OSA. Fat deposits around your upper airway can obstruct your breathing.
  • Neck circumference. People with thicker necks might have narrower airways.
  • A narrowed airway. You might have inherited a narrow throat. Tonsils or adenoids also can enlarge and block the airway, particularly in children.
  • Being male. Men are 2 to 3 times more likely to have sleep apnea than are women. However, women increase their risk if they're overweight or if they've gone through menopause.
  • Being older. Sleep apnea occurs significantly more often in older adults.
  • Family history. Having family members with sleep apnea might increase your risk.
  • Use of alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers. These substances relax the muscles in your throat, which can worsen obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Smoking. Smokers are three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than are people who've never smoked. Smoking can increase the amount of inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway.
  • Nasal congestion. If you have trouble breathing through your nose — whether from an anatomical problem or allergies — you're more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Medical conditions. Congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes are some of the conditions that may increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea. Polycystic ovary syndrome, hormonal disorders, prior stroke and chronic lung diseases such as asthma also can increase risk.

Central sleep apnea

Risk factors for this form of sleep apnea include:

  • Being older. Middle-aged and older people have a higher risk of central sleep apnea.
  • Being male. Central sleep apnea is more common in men than it is in women.
  • Heart disorders. Having congestive heart failure increases the risk.
  • Using narcotic pain medicines. Opioid medicines, especially long-acting ones such as methadone, increase the risk of central sleep apnea.
  • Stroke. Having had a stroke increases the risk of central sleep apnea.


Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition. Complications of OSA can include:

  • Daytime fatigue. The repeated awakenings associated with sleep apnea make typical, restorative sleep impossible, in turn making severe daytime drowsiness, fatigue and irritability likely.

    You might have trouble concentrating and find yourself falling asleep at work, while watching TV or even when driving. People with sleep apnea have an increased risk of motor vehicle and workplace accidents.

    You might also feel quick-tempered, moody or depressed. Children and adolescents with sleep apnea might perform poorly in school or have behavior problems.

  • High blood pressure or heart problems. Sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that occur during OSA increase blood pressure and strain the cardiovascular system. Having OSA increases your risk of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.

    (Video) Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Risks & Treatment

    OSA might also increase your risk of recurrent heart attack, stroke and irregular heartbeats, such as atrial fibrillation. If you have heart disease, multiple episodes of low blood oxygen (hypoxia or hypoxemia) can lead to sudden death from an irregular heartbeat.

  • Type 2 diabetes. Having sleep apnea increases your risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
  • Metabolic syndrome. This disorder, which includes high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood sugar and an increased waist circumference, is linked to a higher risk of heart disease.
  • Complications with medicines and surgery. Obstructive sleep apnea is also a concern with certain medicines and general anesthesia. People with sleep apnea might be more likely to have complications after major surgery because they're prone to breathing problems, especially when sedated and lying on their backs.

    Before you have surgery, tell your doctor about your sleep apnea and how it's being treated.

  • Liver problems. People with sleep apnea are more likely to have irregular results on liver function tests, and their livers are more likely to show signs of scarring, known as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Sleep-deprived partners. Loud snoring can keep anyone who sleeps nearby from getting good rest. It's common for a partner to have to go to another room, or even to another floor of the house, to be able to sleep.

Complications of CSA can include:

  • Fatigue. The repeated awakening associated with sleep apnea makes typical, restorative sleep impossible. People with central sleep apnea often have severe fatigue, daytime drowsiness and irritability.

    You might have difficulty concentrating and find yourself falling asleep at work, while watching television or even while driving.

  • Cardiovascular problems. Sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that occur during central sleep apnea can adversely affect heart health.

    If there's underlying heart disease, these repeated multiple episodes of low blood oxygen — known as hypoxia or hypoxemia — worsen prognosis and increase the risk of irregular heart rhythms.

(Video) Sleep Apnea Diagnosis and Treatment

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Dec. 23, 2022


What is the main cause of sleep apnea? ›

Anything that could narrow your airway such as obesity, large tonsils, or changes in your hormone levels can increase your risk for obstructive sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea happens when your brain does not send the signals needed to breathe.

What are the warning signs of sleep apnea? ›

Watch out for these warning signs.
  • You're a Noisy Sleeper. Snoring, snorting or gasping: Noisy sleep is a warning sign that your upper airway might be obstructed. ...
  • You're Restless During Sleep. ...
  • You're Always Tired. ...
  • You Fit the Profile.

How I got rid of my sleep apnea? ›

  • Lose weight if you're overweight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Drink alcohol moderately, if at all. Don't drink in the hours before bedtime.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Use a nasal decongestant or allergy medications.
  • Don't sleep on your back.
  • Avoid taking sedative medications such as anti-anxiety drugs or sleeping pills.
Jul 27, 2021

Can sleep apnea be fixed? ›

In some cases, sleep apnea can resolve if you return to a healthy weight, but it can recur if you regain the weight. Exercise. Regular exercise can help ease the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea even without weight loss. Try to get 30 minutes of moderate activity, such as a brisk walk, most days of the week.

What aggravates sleep apnea? ›

Your Sleep Position

Sleeping on your back can make your sleep apnea worse— this is because your tongue can fall back towards your throat and press against your airway. Any extra weight or pressure, such as body fat, around your airway can block it while you're on your back also. Instead, try sleeping on your side.

Who gets sleep apnea the most? ›

Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in certain circumstances and groups of people: Before age 50, it's more common in men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB). After age 50, it affects women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) at the same rate. People are more likely to develop it as they get older.

How serious is sleep apnea? ›

Chronic Risks

It can also lead to depression and memory problems and increase daytime sleepiness and the risk of accidents. So, while OSA isn't fatal on its own, many of the problems it can lead to can threaten your life. That makes treating sleep apnea important for protecting your health.

Does your heart stop when you have sleep apnea? ›

Researchers suspect sleep apnea causes abnormal heart rhythms, which lead to sudden cardiac death, for a number of reasons. “Sleep apnea may lower oxygen levels, activate the fight-or-flight response and change pressure in the chest when the upper airway closes, stressing the heart mechanically,” he explains.

What happens if sleep apnea is left untreated? ›

Several studies have shown an association between sleep apnea and problems like type 2 diabetes , strokes , heart attacks and even a shortened lifespan, says Jun.

What is the newest treatment for sleep apnea? ›

For years, the most common treatment for millions of people with sleep apnea involved wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask. That is, until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a new, maskless treatment option -- the Inspire upper airway stimulation device.

How can I test myself for sleep apnea? ›

A home sleep apnea test is a portable breathing monitor you wear overnight. It is designed to help diagnose obstructive sleep apnea at home. As you sleep, the device monitors your breathing and oxygen levels to detect and measure pauses in breathing, which are known as apneas.

What does sleep apnea fatigue feel like? ›

More than usual daytime sleepiness. Waking up with a dry throat or headache. Waking up often during the night. Difficulty concentrating or mood changes during the day.

Can I ever recover from sleep apnea? ›

Does sleep apnea go away? The answer is no, although it is a common question among people with a sleep apnea diagnosis. While there is no cure for this chronic condition, there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can reduce your sleep apnea symptoms.

How do you fix sleep apnea without a CPAP machine? ›

5 Sleep Apnea Treatment Options
  1. Oral Appliances. Just as there are dental professionals who specialize in orthodontics or dental implants, there are also those who can help with sleep apnea. ...
  2. Oral Surgery. In some cases, genetics can be the cause of sleep apnea. ...
  3. Weight Loss. ...
  4. Positional Therapy. ...
  5. Inspire Therapy.
Jun 18, 2019

Does apnea ever go away? ›

In general, obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic condition that does not go away on its own. This is especially true if you are an adult, as your anatomy tends to remain fixed from adolescence onwards. There are numerous factors that can cause obstructive sleep apnea, many of which relate to a person's anatomy.

What are the best sleeping positions for sleep apnea? ›

Side sleeping with your back mostly straight is the best position for sleep apnea sufferers according to the Sleep Better Council. Research shows that sleeping on the left side reduces sleep apnea even more than sleeping on the right.

Can you live a long life with sleep apnea? ›

If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can shorten your life from anywhere between 12-15 years. While there is no permanent cure for obstructive sleep apnea, diagnosis and treatment will alleviate its effects. Proper treatment can ensure that your OSA won't shorten your life.

What is the most common treatment for sleep apnea? ›

A breathing device, such as a CPAP machine, is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. A CPAP machine provides constant air pressure in your throat to keep the airway open when you breathe in. Breathing devices work best when you also make healthy lifestyle changes.

What foods should I avoid with sleep apnea? ›

Foods to Avoid If You Have Sleep Apnea
  • Fatty Meats. Eating a lot of fatty red meats can cause inflammation in the body, which is closely linked to heart disease. ...
  • High-Fat Dairy Products. ...
  • Bananas. ...
  • Foods with Melatonin. ...
  • Omega-3 Foods. ...
  • Tryptophan-Rich Foods.
Sep 3, 2021

What medications should be avoided with sleep apnea? ›

Many medications can make sleep apnea worse, including:
  • Barbiturates.
  • Benzodiazepines.
  • Some beta-blockers.
  • Opioids.
  • Sildenafil (an erectile dysfunction drug)
  • Testosterone.
  • Drugs that cause you to gain weight.
Jun 18, 2021

Does pillow help sleep apnea? ›

While a pillow on its own won't cure your sleep apnea, it can potentially lessen the number of apneas you experience or make it more comfortable to wear your treatment through the night, greatly improving sleep quality and how you feel the next day.

What is the life expectancy of a CPAP? ›

Your CPAP machine should be replaced after approximately 5 years of use. The good news is, Medicare and most other insurers typically provide coverage for a new CPAP machine around the same time frame.

Are there alternatives to a CPAP machine? ›

EPAP: Expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP) therapy is a newer alternative to CPAP. Instead of using a machine that delivers pressurized air, a nasal EPAP device uses valves to create air pressure when the user exhales, keeping the upper airway from collapsing.

Does Apple Watch detect sleep apnea? ›

Can an Apple Watch Detect Sleep Apnea? Like Fitbit and other wearables, the Apple Watch can detect certain parameters like heart rate and blood oxygen saturation that may indicate sleep apnea, but it cannot comprehensively detect or diagnose sleep apnea.

Does sleep apnea happen every night? ›

What is sleep apnea? Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder. People who have sleep apnea stop breathing for 10 to 30 seconds at a time while they are sleeping. These short stops in breathing can happen up to 400 times every night.

Can sleep apnea make you gain weight? ›

Obstructive sleep apnea can also contribute to weight gain and obesity. Research has shown that approximately 40 percent of the people living with obesity also have obstructive sleep apnea, and 70 percent of people with obstructive sleep apnea are obese.

How can I increase my oxygen level while sleeping? ›

Sleep On Your Side

Lying on your back presses down on your lungs, resulting in labored breathing. This is why some people snore more loudly when sleeping on their back. You can improve your breathing as you sleep by sleeping on your side.

How many sleep apnea episodes are normal? ›

That's because it's considered normal for everyone to have up to four apneas an hour. It's also common if your AHIs vary from night to night. For some CPAP users, even higher AHIs are acceptable, depending on the severity of your sleep apnea.

How does sleep apnea affect the brain? ›

These breathing pauses can prevent your body from supplying enough oxygen to the brain. In severe cases this lack of oxygen can lead to brain damage. Signs of this damage include memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and moodiness.

Can you live with sleep apnea without treatment? ›

Without treatment, sleep apnea can lead to serious complications. It may lead to or worsen several life-threatening conditions, including: high blood pressure. stroke.

How long does it take to fully recover from sleep apnea? ›

Time Take to Recover From Sleep Apnea

Averagely, the effects will start showing around three months, and full recovery can be up to a year. Sleep apnea should be dealt with as soon as possible.

What is the average cost of a CPAP machine? ›

A CPAP machine's cost can range anywhere from $500 to $1,000 or more, with prices generally rising for CPAP machines with more advanced features. Most CPAP machines fall in the $500 to $800 range, however.

How to naturally help sleep apnea? ›

Sleep apnea lifestyle remedies
  1. Maintain a healthy weight. Doctors commonly recommend people with sleep apnea to lose weight. ...
  2. Try yoga. Regular exercise can increase your energy level, strengthen your heart, and improve sleep apnea. ...
  3. Alter your sleep position. ...
  4. Use a humidifier. ...
  5. Avoid alcohol and smoking. ...
  6. Use oral appliances.

At what age can you have sleep apnea? ›

Anyone at any age can have obstructive sleep apnea, but it's most common in middle-aged and older adults. Only about 2% of children have obstructive sleep apnea. It's also more common in men than in women.

How many hours of sleep do you need for a sleep study? ›

However, nearly everyone eventually falls asleep during a sleep study. Even if you get less sleep than you normally do at home, a sleep study only requires two hours of sleep.

How do I know if I need a CPAP machine? ›

The Most Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Loud snoring, which is more often seen in obstructive sleep apnea. Times where your bed partner notices you stop breathing. Waking abruptly with shortness of breath, which is more often seen in central sleep apnea. Having a dry or sore throat when you awake.

Can sleep apnea make you feel weird? ›

There is a lot of overlap between problems with sleep and problems with mood. Depression, in particular, has a strong association with sleep apnea. This might manifest as feeling down or sad, even episodes of crying, but there can be other findings in depression as well.

What is the best sleep position with sleep apnea? ›

Snoring and sleep apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea causes the airways to collapse during sleep, leading to pauses in breathing. It often goes hand-in-hand with snoring. Positioning yourself on your side or stomach can help the airways stay open to reduce snoring and alleviate mild apnea, Salas says.

What should I avoid if I have sleep apnea? ›

Foods to Avoid If You Have Sleep Apnea
  • Fatty Meats. Eating a lot of fatty red meats can cause inflammation in the body, which is closely linked to heart disease. ...
  • High-Fat Dairy Products. ...
  • Bananas. ...
  • Foods with Melatonin. ...
  • Omega-3 Foods. ...
  • Tryptophan-Rich Foods.
Sep 3, 2021

What can I use instead of a CPAP machine? ›

If CPAP isn't for you, a few other OSA treatment options include:
  • an oral appliance.
  • bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP)
  • nasal valve therapy.
  • lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking.
  • surgery to fix an underlying cause of OSA.
May 6, 2020

What can I use instead of CPAP? ›

EPAP: Expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP) therapy is a newer alternative to CPAP. Instead of using a machine that delivers pressurized air, a nasal EPAP device uses valves to create air pressure when the user exhales, keeping the upper airway from collapsing.

Are there pillows that help with sleep apnea? ›

Some individuals find that using a wedge pillow for sleep apnea helps them get more restful sleep. Others simply enjoy the wedge shape for relaxing in bed. By lifting the upper body, wedge pillows may help to reduce airway compression caused by gravity.

How do I keep my airways open at night? ›

Sleep on your side.

Lying on your side, on the other hand, helps keep your airway open. If you find side sleeping uncomfortable or you tend to roll on to your back after you're asleep, countered side pillows or body pillows may help.

What age group is sleep apnea most common? ›

Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in certain circumstances and groups of people: Before age 50, it's more common in men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB). After age 50, it affects women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) at the same rate. People are more likely to develop it as they get older.


1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea
(Johns Hopkins Medicine)
2. Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
3. Sleep Apnea Signs & Symptoms (& Why They Occur) | Central, Obstructive & Mixed Sleep Apnea
(JJ Medicine)
4. Sleep Apnea - Causes, Symptoms and Treatments and More
5. Easy At-Home Test To Diagnose Sleep Apnea
(CBS New York)
6. Obstructive Sleep Apnea or Central Sleep Apnea? Signs and Symptoms Explained
(Sleep Is The Foundation)


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