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Don’t Ignore the Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

We may like to kid around with our family members or roommates who keep us up at night with their snoring, but for some people it really is no laughing matter. When combined with periods of no breathing and/or gasping for breath, it could be a sign of sleep apnea, and cause for alarm.   If you or someone you know shows signs or symptoms of sleep apnea, it’s important to understand how serious the condition can be, and take actions to get tested and learn what you can do about it to avoid complications.

What it is

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can be life threatening. People with this disorder experience disruptions in their breathing while they’re sleeping. Usually the pauses in breathing  and/or the very shallow breathing are caused by tissue obstruction of the airway, which creates the snoring sound. A less common type of sleep apnea, called central sleep apnea, occurs when the brain does not send signals to breathe1.

 The body reacts to the disruption in airflow by sending a message to the brain to wake up, which invokes the “flight or fight” response. This can happen several times per hour, resulting in people never reaching deep levels of sleep, experiencing low oxygen levels in their blood and having the cardiovascular stress of the “flight or fight” response1.  


Both of these complications (low blood oxygen levels and failure to reach deep sleep) can lead to increased risk of:

  • drowsiness during the day
  • increased accidents because of the drowsiness
  • mood disorders
  • cardiovascular disorders
  • asthma
  • eye disorders
  • metabolic disorders
  • kidney disease
  • cancer
  • pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes and gestational hypertension
  • sleep-deprived partners (because of the loud snoring)2

Who gets it

Men, women and children of all ages can have sleep apnea.  It is much more prevalent in men than women, and it’s estimated that approximately 18 million Americans have the condition. Of those, only 20% know they have it and are undergoing treatment3. This fact underscores the importance of awareness, especially since the complications can be so serious. 

Risk factors include:

  • family history
  • being obese
  • being over the age of 50
  • having a narrowed airway
  • having hypertension, diabetes, chronic nasal congestion (allergies) or asthma
  • being male
  • smoking 2

Clues you may have it

The most obvious reason to get tested for this disorder is if your sleeping partner has noticed that you’re snoring, gasping at night and/or taking long pauses between breaths. Other clues include:

  • Morning headaches
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Change in cognitive ability/ daytime drowsiness
  • Frequent nighttime urination
  • Sexual dysfunction2


If you think you may suffer from sleep apnea start with your primary care doctor. He or she can recommend a sleep disorder center for further evaluation. From there, you may undergo nocturnal polysomnography at a sleep center, or a simpler at home test-both of which will give the specialist information on how your body is acting while you sleep4.

How to manage it

If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, depending on the severity of your disorder, you may be able to try to manage it with lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking or losing weight. Most likely though, your doctor will recommend a mask worn over your face and hooked to a breathing machine, called a CPAP machine (CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure).  The CPAP will regulate your breathing overnight, but some patients complain that it’s uncomfortable5.

The FDA approved a new therapy in 2014, called stimulation therapy.  An implant is surgically placed under the clavicle with impulse leads that connect to the nerve responsible for tongue protrusion.  When turned on at night, the impulses stimulate the tongue to stiffen slightly and protrude forward, helping to maintain an open airway6.


Because sleep apnea can lead to such serious complications, it’s important to take any signs and symptoms you or a loved one exhibits seriously and take action.  The inconvenience or discomfort of the treatment far outweighs the potentially serious complications the disorder can effect.

1 Sleep Apnea. (n.d.). Retrieved from opens in a new window
2 Obstructive sleep apnea. (2018, March 06). Retrieved from opens in a new window
3 FNP, K. D. (2018, January 18). Sleep apnea: Treatments, causes, and symptoms. Retrieved from opens in a new window
4 Sleep apnea. (2018, July 25). Retrieved from opens in a new window
5 CPAP machines: Tips for avoiding 10 common problems. (2018, May 17). Retrieved from opens in a new window
6 Pulmonary Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved from opens in a new window