Understanding Sleep Apnea

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a very common disorder that causes you to stop breathing while you sleep—from a few seconds to minutes. These breathing pauses often occur 5 to 30 times or more per hour. Normal breathing usually starts again, sometimes with a snort or choking sound. If you have sleep apnea, it disrupts your sleep at least three nights a week. You sleep poorly, so you are tired during the day—sometimes so tired that you can't concentrate, work, or drive.

There are three types of sleep apnea—obstructive, central, and complex. Obstructive is the most common form of sleep apnea.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea most often happens when your airway has collapsed or is blocked during sleep. This causes shallow breathing or breathing pauses. When you try to breathe, you might snore loudly from air that squeezes past the blockage.
  • Central sleep apnea happens when the part of your brain that controls breathing doesn't send correct signals. This means you make no effort to breathe for brief periods of time.
  • Complex sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Who can get Sleep Apnea?

Anyone can have sleep apnea, even children. But there are certain factors that may put you at risk for obstructive and complex sleep apnea:

  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Gender—males are more likely to have sleep apnea than females
  • Being older than 65
  • Using alcohol or sedatives before going to sleep

There are three risk factors for central sleep apnea:

  • Gender—males are more likely to have central sleep apnea than females
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke or brain tumor

How Serious is Sleep Apnea?

If you have sleep apnea, you may be excessively sleepy on a day-to-day basis. That can make it difficult for you to reason, concentrate, and react quickly. You can fall asleep driving. And your sleepiness may affect your work.

If you have sleep apnea and do not treat it, you can increase your risk of:

  • High blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Having work-related or driving accidents

Learn more about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea