What Is Sleep Apnea and How to Deal With It?

written by / May 30, 2019
What Is Sleep Apnea - Featured

Snoring and breathing pauses during the night are common sleep-related disorders. If you snore regularly and constantly feel sleepy during the day, you may suffer from sleep apnea. So what is sleep apnea exactly? Although it’s nearly as prevalent as asthma and diabetes, the condition often remains undiagnosed as a “hidden epidemic.” According to this comprehensive infographic, about 22 million Americans suffer from this sleep disorder.

Sleep apnea (also known as apnea) is a common condition characterized by a patient having their breathing stop while they’re asleep. In most patients, the episodes last anywhere between 20 to 30 seconds and 2 or 3 minutes. But how many apneas per hour is normal? Apnea is considered to be lack of breathing for more than 10 seconds at least five times within an hour.

Sleep apnea can lead to low-quality sleep, significant daytime sleepiness, and insomnia. If left untreated, sleep apnea can potentially worsen certain diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, pulmonary hypertension, stroke, and others.

The sleep apnea definition is supplemented by the following classifications:

  • Central Sleep Apnea – This condition is defined by disturbances in the signals from the brain to the respiratory muscles.
  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) – The more common form of the disease, OSA occurs due to a loosening in the tone of the throat’s muscles.
  • Complex or Mixed Sleep Apnea – This form of the condition is a combination of the first two. Generally, it occurs when central sleep apnea develops during the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea with devices like a CPAP machine.

What Is the Main Cause of Sleep Apnea?

In the case of central sleep apnea, it can be caused by certain conditions that damage or suppress the brainstem, such as the following:

  • Cardiovascular diseases – stroke, heart failure, etc.
  • Medicines – morphine, codeine, and other opioids
  • Climbing high heights – decreased oxygen concentration at altitudes above 4500 feet can lead to changes in breathing patterns and sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea happens when the throat muscles relax too much and begin to block airflow. When the muscles relax, the airways narrow down or close, and breathing becomes insufficient or even impossible. As a patient’s oxygen levels decrease, the brain detects this and causes a “mild awakening,” which improves the muscle tone and allows the airways open. These wakeups are quite short, so they aren’t remembered. Unfortunately, the number of these pauses can reach 400–500 times, thus leading to fragmented, low-quality sleep.

The obstructive sleep apnea pathophysiology includes airflow obstructions that can occur at any level of the upper respiratory tract and may be due to certain physical factors:

The risk factors for the condition can be found below:Central Form of Sleep Apnea

  • Male gender
  • Old age
  • Traumas and disorders of the brainstem
  • Use of opioid substances
  • Stroke or tumor in the brain

Obstructive Form of Sleep Apnea

  • Use of anesthetics, sleeping medicines, or alcohol
  • Neurological diseases (myasthenia gravis, strokes)
  • Upper respiratory tract infections
  • Diabetes
  • Male gender
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Old age

How to Sleep with Sleep Apnea

The best route is to seek medical treatment. However, not all people who snore during sleep have sleep apnea, and not all who have sleep apnea snore. Regular snoring differs from sleep apnea in the way a person feels during the day. Habitual snoring neither impairs one’s sleep quality nor does it cause sleepiness and fatigue during the day.

You should seek medical attention when your snoring becomes too strong and wakes you or others around you. Additionally, your condition might be serious if you feel you’re suffering from insomnia or tiredness to the point where you can’t easily perform everyday tasks.

What Are the Warning Signs of Sleep Apnea?

The most common symptoms of apnea during sleep are listed below:

Central Sleep Apnea Symptoms

  • Episodes of stopping breathing at night
  • Insomnia
  • Tiredness during the day
  • Morning headache
  • Distracted concentration
  • Snoring (though not as frequently)

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Symptoms

  • Severe snoring
  • Insomnia
  • Tiredness during the day
  • Distracted concentration
  • Poorly controlled high blood pressure

Prolonged daytime tiredness is one of the most critical symptoms. Fatigue can lead to disturbances in concentration such that someone with the disease risks falling asleep during work or while driving, which can have serious consequences.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms in Kids

What Is Sleep Apnea - Kids

Any child who is snoring should be examined by a doctor, as this is usually a sign of a problem in the upper respiratory tract, the tonsils, or surrounding tissues. Causes of the condition in children up to two years old vary. Genetic, upper respiratory tract anatomical differences and infections, some syndromes, or neurological conditions in the neonatal period are all possible examples. For children over two years of age, sleep apnea could be due to problems with the tonsillar apparatus, adenoid hypertrophy, and obesity.

The specter of sleep disturbances includes snoring, superficial sleeping, and sleep apnea. Statistics show that the number of occurrences of obstructive sleep apnea in children is around 1–6%. If you’d like to learn more interesting facts about this sleep disorder, you can check out 31 Breathtaking Sleep Apnea Statistics.

Any occasion a child’s breathing stops for more than 10 seconds should be a cause for concern. Even if the child remains unconscious, their quality of sleep is still disturbed. In this case, even one disruption per hour is a pathological condition. For adults, the number of these events per hour determines the severity of sleep apnea. However, in children, one occurrence is enough for them to become ill.

How Do They Diagnose Sleep Apnea?

If you or your doctor suspects you have sleep apnea, you might be sent to a sleep lab to do specialized tests. A Polysomnography test is considered the “gold standard” in the study of sleep apnea. During this study, you sleep overnight in the lab, while you’re attached to devices that monitor the functions of your heart, nervous system, and breathing patterns, as well as the movements of your legs and arms, etc.

This particular sleep apnea test can also exclude other conditions (such as narcolepsy) that cause drowsiness during the day. It’s crucial to distinguish the two states because the therapy is different. If the test results demonstrate abnormalities, you may have to spend another night in the lab to adjust the pressure of the air supplied through the mask/machine.

Is It Possible to Cure Sleep Apnea?

The treatment of central sleep apnea includes treating the underlying condition. For example, heart failure can be complicated by sleep apnea, but the subsequent treatment of heart disease should help relieve the symptoms of sleep apnea.

In other cases, reducing any opioid medication doses (morphine, codeine, etc.) after consulting with a physician may alleviate the symptoms. However, machines that provide positive air pressure are the most advanced sleep apnea treatment options:

  • CPAP Mask (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) – This is the most widely used method for treating sleep apnea (obstructive or central). During sleep, a mask around the nose is connected to an apparatus that sends air under pressure that holds the airways open.
  • BiPAP Mask (Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure) In contrast to the CPAP, which maintains constant inhale and exhale air pressure, a BiPAP device delivers air under higher pressure when you inhale and lower pressure when you breathe out. This type of treatment helps patients who breathe weakly. Some BiPAP devices automatically deliver air when they sense you haven’t breathed for a certain number of seconds.

Some people can relieve their symptoms with oxygen therapy. However, sleep apnea treatment without a CPAP is also possible and can be performed at several levels. Changes in lifestyle can help:

  • Quit smoking
  • Stop consuming alcohol and alcoholic beverages (especially avoid drinking a few hours before sleep)
  • Lose weight
  • Avoid sleeping on your back (read more about the best sleeping positions for preventing sleep apnea)

What Is Sleep Apnea - SmokingSurgical treatment is recommended when all nonsurgical methods are unsuccessful. The purpose of surgical treatment is to remove any upper airway obstruction during sleep. Some of the surgical techniques used are as follows:

  • Removing the obstructing tissues
  • Surgical interventions of the upper and lower jaws
  • Tracheostomy

Can Sleep Apnea Get Worse?

Sleep apnea can worsen and develop certain complications:

  • Fatigue – This is the result of frequently waking up at night. It can decrease your concentration at work or while driving, which can lead to severe accidents on the road or at the workplace.
  • Cardiovascular diseases – Prolonged problems with the levels of oxygen in the blood damage the heart. In people suffering from sleep apnea, there’s a risk of developing cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation.
  • Complications in surgery – After a major surgery, patients with OSA may develop complications. Before surgery, you should tell your doctor if you suffer from sleep apnea.


How serious is sleep apnea?

Recent studies have shown that snoring and sleep apnea are associated with severe illnesses. If untreated, they’re a risk factor and can contribute to increased blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and depression.

  • Almost 50% of people with type 2 diabetes have sleep apnea.
  • Over 35% of people who have sleep apnea suffer from high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease.
  • 83% of people who continue to suffer from high blood pressure even after taking 3 or more types of medication also suffer from sleep apnea.
  • Almost 70% of people who have suffered a stroke have sleep apnea.
  • When a person suffers from sleep apnea, their risk of a car accident is 7 times higher.

Can sleep apnea kill you?

The breathing breaks caused by sleep apnea are associated with a decrease in the saturation of oxygen in the blood. Although low levels of oxygen saturation at night is not an immediate cause of death, it can still damage the body by way of arterial hypertension and diabetes mellitus.

For a moment, let’s give a little more technical answer to the question, What is sleep apnea in relation to other diseases? The low oxygen saturation that’s caused by sleep apnea can cause vascular and endothelial dysfunction, contribute to early atherosclerosis, and increase the risk of cardiovascular events (myocardial infarction, heart failure, and various types of arrhythmias). The condition is also associated with an impaired metabolism, including impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes mellitus, dyslipidemia, and metabolic syndrome.

Therefore, it is not likely that sleep apnea causes death by itself, but it can potentially play a role in the development of other diseases or disorders. Additionally, it is a risk factor for road accidents due to the high level of drowsiness brought on by this condition. Traffic accidents occur three to seven times more often in patients who suffer from sleep apnea.

Can sleep apnea go away by itself?

It is not likely that sleep apnea will go away by itself. The reason for that is the underlying pathological diseases that cause the condition.

Moreover, the condition has a tendency to deteriorate, which increases the risk of complications. Therefore, treatment is mandatory. Aparata that provide positive air pressure become a “sleeping airway prosthesis” that allows patients to breathe and sleep normally.

It’s recommended that patients follow the new sleep apnea treatment. The use of modern CPAP devices reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and prevents gradual damage to the brain due to an insufficient supply of oxygen. This treatment also helps patients recover their healthy sleep and memory functions. It’s been scientifically proven that the use of a CPAP machine reduces the risk of stroke, heart attack, and diabetes.

Can skinny people have sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition that cannot be attributed only to people who are overweight, older, or male—the risks are merely higher among these groups. A skinny person can suffer from the state too. This stereotype has been debunked now that significant health consequences caused by sleep apnea have been observed in people with a healthy body mass index (BMI), especially women.

What does a CPAP machine do when you stop breathing?

The modern CPAP machine provides a smart and intuitive approach. The device senses the occurrences of snoring sounds and apneas. When these signals are detected, it then starts to supply additional oxygen pressure. Once the optimal level of pressure has been reached, the machine maintains the desired level for some time, then reduces it again and “waits” for the next sleeping event (apnea).

With the sleep apnea machine, the air is pressurized through a hose and delivered via a small mask or a system of nasal pillows. Most apneas are caused by the tissues in your throat sticking together while sleeping and blocking your breathing paths. To prevent this, an improved flow of pressurized air holds the airways open and prevents an apnea.

This treatment doesn’t require medication or surgery, and it helps hundreds of thousands of people around the world enjoy healthy sleep. Many of them experience improvement quickly—often on the first night of use.


If you’ve been wondering just what is sleep apnea, there’s a good chance you have the condition. This sleep disorder can be serious, with side effects that impact both your overall health as well as your concentration and ability to complete necessary everyday tasks. With this in mind, don’t wait any longer to seek medical help. Considering the ways it can improve your life, there’s no reason to avoid seeking sleep apnea treatment.

At medical school, it was easy to realize that sleep is crucial while studying during the many sleepless nights I spent. As a new mom, when the lack of sleep became even more evident, this was the real moment when I started appreciating the benefits of a good night’s sleep. Since sleeping is so essential to our health and immune system, I took it upon myself to educate people on different aspects of sleep by sharing the valuable information I have learned.