What Are The Warning Signs Of Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common sleeping disorder that can occur in both men and women at any age, but men over the age of 50¹ are more likely to develop the condition.

The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that around 22 million adults in the US experience sleep apnea².

If you or a loved one may be experiencing sleep apnea, get to know the warning signs and when to contact your doctor.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder that causes you to stop breathing for short episodes (20 to 30 seconds at a time) while you are asleep. These episodes can occur dozens of times during the night.

Sleep apnea is often accompanied by loud snoring, restless sleep, and feeling tired even after a full eight hours.

Sleep apnea can increase your risk of developing other serious health conditions. However, there are treatment options available that can prevent sleep apnea symptoms, decreasing your risk of developing other health concerns, and improving your quality of life.

There are two types of sleep apnea:

Obstructive sleep apnea

This is the most common form of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles of your throat relax, causing your airway to narrow as you inhale while sleeping.

When your brain senses the lack of oxygen, you briefly wake up which causes the throat muscles to return to their normal position. Many people don't remember waking up and aren't aware that these episodes are happening until a partner tells them.

In some cases, the airway can close completely which can cause you to wake up gasping or feeling like you are choking.

Central sleep apnea

This type of sleep apnea occurs when your brain doesn’t send the right signals to your lungs that you need to breathe. Although it is rare, it shares many of the same symptoms as obstructive sleep apnea and may be treated with the same methods. 

Warning signs of sleep apnea

The warning signs of obstructive and central sleep apnea are very similar and include:

  • Loud snoring – Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, but those with sleep apnea usually snore at a loud volume that may disturb their partner's sleep. 

  • Periods of time when you stop breathing during sleep – This can be difficult to recognize yourself. People with sleep apnea rarely remember their episodes during the night, but your partner may notice. 

  • Waking up with a feeling of choking or gagging – This happens when your throat muscles relax so much that they obstruct your airway completely.

  • Having a headache in the morning – This can be a sign that your body didn’t get enough oxygen overnight. 

  • Feeling tired during the day – Sleep apnea can disrupt your sleep to the extent that you may feel tired the next day, even after getting a full night’s rest. 

  • Trouble staying asleep – If you find yourself waking up frequently during the night, the lack of oxygen may cause your brain to keep you awake. 

Risks of sleep apnea

Sleep apnea doesn't only disturb your sleep. This type of sleeping disorder causes your blood oxygen levels to drop repeatedly throughout the night which increases blood carbon dioxide levels. This also puts significant additional strain on your heart.

Because of this, having sleep apnea puts you at higher risk of developing other serious medical conditions, including:

  • Hypertension

  • Stroke

  • Heart disease

  • Type II diabetes

  • Obesity 

If you think you may have sleep apnea, it's important to contact your doctor as early as possible. They can recommend treatment to help keep your airways open throughout the night to reduce or stop sleep apnea.

You'll end up getting a better night's sleep as well as lowering your risk of developing other serious health conditions.

Who is at risk of developing sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea can occur in anyone at any age. However, certain demographics are more at risk of developing this sleeping disorder. You may be at a higher risk for sleep apnea if you are:

  • Male – According to the Cleveland Clinic¹, sleep apnea occurs in about 25% of men and 10% of women. 

  • Overweight – Excess fat deposits in the neck can restrict the airways while you sleep. 

  • Over the age of 50 – As you get older, the muscles in your throat weaken which can create more of an obstruction when they relax.

  • Smoking– According to the Mayo Clinic, smokers are three times more likely to develop sleep apnea as compared to non-smokers. 

  • Using sedatives or alcohol – These can relax your throat muscles when you sleep, obstructing your airway. 

When to see a doctor about sleep apnea

As well as disrupting your sleep, having sleep apnea can increase your risk of developing serious health conditions such as heart disease, type II diabetes, and stroke.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of sleep apnea, including loud snoring, interrupted sleep, or fatigue throughout the day, make an appointment with your doctor or healthcare provider as soon as possible. They can diagnose the condition and create a treatment plan for you.

Effective treatments include CPAP machines, oral appliances, or lifestyle changes.

The lowdown

Sleep apnea is a very common sleeping disorder, affecting around 22 million people in the US.

Sleep apnea is when you stop breathing for 20 to 30 seconds at a time, multiple times each night. This causes a drop in blood oxygen levels and can contribute to the development of heart disease, type II diabetes, stroke, and other serious health concerns.

Symptoms of sleep apnea include loud snoring, waking up during the night with a choking or gagging sensation, and feeling tired throughout the day even after a full night's rest.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of sleep apnea, make an appointment with your doctor. Treatment not only improves the quality of your sleep but also lowers your risk of developing other serious health conditions.

  1. Sleep Apnea | Cleveland Clinic

  2. Sleep Apnea Information for Clinicians | SleepApnea.org

  3. Sleep apnea | Mayo Clinic

  4. 4 Signs You Might Have Sleep Apnea | Johns Hopkins Medicine

  5. The Dangers of Uncontrolled Sleep Apnea | Johns Hopkins Medicine

  6. Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Natural Remedies | Help Guide

  7. Sleep Apnea | NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

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