Trouble breathing at night? It could be sleep apnea

Trouble breathing at night? It could be sleep apnea

Trouble breathing at night? It could be sleep apnea

According to the American Medical Association, approximately 30 million Americans have sleep apnea, but only one-fifth of them are clinically diagnosed. For such a widespread condition, many people are unaware of the symptoms of sleep apnea and its health effects, including everything from snoring to fatigue.

Below, we’ll dive into some common sleep apnea questions so you can identify the warning signs.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a medical condition that causes your breathing to continuously stop and restart while you sleep. There are several risk factors for sleep apnea, including obesity, having a large tongue or tonsils, or having certain medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease.

The disorder can negatively affect the quality of your sleep, leading to less restful nights and daytime fatigue. If left untreated, sleep apnea can cause serious health problems, potentially increasing your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

Since sleep apnea occurs while you sleep, you may not even know you have it, but your partner may be able to point out some signs. Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring: When your airways are blocked by sleep apnea, it’s harder for oxygen to get through. The reduced airflow can cause your throat tissue to vibrate, leading to snoring.
  • Breathing that stops and starts again while you sleep: Sleep apnea can cause your throat muscles to relax, which can then constrict your airways and momentarily stop your breathing.
  • Gasping, choking or snorting: You may experience these symptoms as your body tries to correct your breathing while you sleep.
  • Feeling tired during the day: Because sleep apnea interrupts your sleep, you may wake up feeling tired or not well rested.
  • Waking up with a dry mouth: Since it’s harder to breathe with sleep apnea, you can overcompensate by breathing with your mouth open, which can make it dry (called xerostomia).
  • Getting up frequently to go to the bathroom at night: Some people with sleep apnea have nocturia, which is a condition that causes you to wake up repeatedly during the night to urinate.
  • Altered concentration: A lack of restful sleep can impact your ability to concentrate in your day-to-day life.
  • Irritability: Likewise, when you don’t get enough sleep, you may feel more irritable or frustrated during the day.

Types of sleep apnea

There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Although the symptoms are similar, the causes are different. Here’s how they compare.

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea also prevents air from entering your throat while you sleep. It happens when the soft tissues in your airways become blocked during sleep, causing decreased airflow to your lungs and, in some cases, snoring, choking, or gasping. Like central sleep apnea, this disorder is more likely to occur in men and older people.

There are a few causes of obstructive sleep apnea, obesity being one of the most common. Other possible contributing factors include a wide or thick neck, heart failure, endocrine and metabolic disorders, smoking, and a family history of sleep apnea.

Central sleep apnea

With central sleep apnea, your breathing stops, starts, and becomes shallower while you sleep. It’s triggered by a miscommunication between your brain and the muscles you use to breathe and is less common than obstructive sleep apnea. According to the Sleep Foundation, the disorder is more common in men and people over the age of 65.

Central sleep apnea is usually caused by other medical conditions, including heart failure, stroke, and kidney failure. Continued use of prescription medications and sleeping at high altitudes are other potential causes of this type of sleep apnea.

Health Impacts of Sleep Apnea

From your heart to your liver, sleep apnea can have widespread impacts that affect many parts of your body. These are some of the most common health problems associated with the disease.

Cardiovascular problems

When your breathing stops at night, your body releases stress hormones, which can eventually lead to coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, and cardiac arrhythmia. Additionally, sleep apnea negatively impacts your sleep quality, which can also adversely affect your heart health.

Excessive fatigue

If you have sleep apnea, the constant stopping and restarting of your breathing can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. As a result, you may feel tired during the day. Being tired all the time can trigger a host of other issues, like mood swings, depression, and trouble concentrating. It can also weaken your immune system and make driving dangerous.

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Type 2 diabetes

Research has shown that people with OSA are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and more than half of people with type 2 diabetes suffer from sleep apnea. Additionally, sleep apnea deprives the body of oxygen, which increases insulin resistance and raises glucose levels – so treating this disorder can make your type 2 diabetes worse.

liver problems

Obstructive sleep apnea increases liver enzymes and is linked to the development and progression of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a medical condition where excess fat builds up in the liver. If you have NAFLD, you may be at higher risk for other health problems, including cirrhosis and liver failure.

Risk factors

There are a number of risk factors that influence your chances of developing sleep apnea. Here are some of the most common.


Although people of any age can suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, it is more common in older people and the risk of developing it increases with age. Central sleep apnea is more common in people age 60 and older.


Males and males assigned at birth have a higher risk of developing sleep apnea, but the odds begin to even out as people age. For women, menopause increases the risk of sleep apnea.

Medical conditions

People with certain health conditions, including certain thyroid and heart problems, may have a higher chance of getting either type of sleep apnea. In addition to this, medical conditions such as hypertension, nasal congestion, diabetes, and asthma can also create a higher risk of obstructive sleep apnea.


Studies indicate that being overweight or obese is a risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea. This is because heavier people tend to have more fat deposits in their necks, which can obstruct their airways.

family history

Having a family history of sleep apnea increases the risk of developing the disorder. The reason for this is that genetics help determine the size and shape of a person’s neck region – a larger area makes it easier for obstructive sleep apnea to develop. Genes also play a role in how the brain controls breathing, which could increase the risk of developing central sleep apnea.

Way of life

Drinking and smoking have been shown to increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea because alcohol relaxes throat muscles and tobacco increases airway inflammation, which restricts breathing.

For more information on sleep apnea and possible treatments, see why you may feel tired after a full night’s sleep.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.


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