Sleep apnea is a condition that results in pauses in your breathing while you are sleeping. There are two main types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). OSA occurs when your airways narrow or close during sleep, stopping airflow and causing apneas (short periods when you are not breathing) or hypopneas (shallow breathing that causes sleep disruption or oxygen level drops). CSA, which is less common, results when the brain does not always send the necessary signals to breath during sleep. Apneas often happen repeatedly while you sleep, interrupting your sleep and leaving you tired after you wake up. Some people with do not feel tired even if they have sleep apnea. Often people with sleep apnea do not know they have the disorder. Both types of sleep apnea share symptoms, diagnostic testing and management needs.

Key Facts

  • Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder with approximately 30 million adults in the United States living with this condition; however, millions are undiagnosed.
  • Your risk of sleep apnea increases with age, weight and if you are male or after menopause if you are female.
  • Because sleep is interrupted, people with sleep apnea can feel sleepy during waking hours and sometimes feel irritable, forgetful, unable to concentrate or less alert.
  • Untreated sleep apnea is associated with developing high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac rhythm disturbances, difficulty controlling blood sugar levels and dementia (memory loss).
  • Motor vehicle accidents are twice as likely to happen when people with untreated sleep apnea are driving.

How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Body

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles and soft tissue at the back of the throat relax too much and collapse while you are sleeping. This allows the soft tissues and the tongue to block your airway and disrupt your breathing. When the oxygen level in your blood starts to drop, your brain signals you to wake briefly and start breathing again. This cycle happens over and over while you sleep and often you don't even realize it is happening.

Sleepiness during waking hours, forgetfulness and irritability are just some of the ways sleep apnea may affect your health and well-being. People with sleep apnea often feel as if they haven't slept at all, even if they sleep for the recommended daily seven to nine hours. This is because waking up so often prevents high-quality sleep. In addition to feeling sleepy , not getting enough sleep may make it harder to concentrate, or could make you forgetful, irritable and foggy-headed. Interestingly, children with sleep apnea often become hyperactive instead of sleepy.

There are serious potential consequences to undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnea. Besides making sleep difficult, it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia and result in early death.

Who Is at Risk?

There are several factors that can increase your risk for sleep apnea.

  • Obesity-one of the most common risk factors because increased fatty tissue in your breathing passages reduces the space for air to pass through.
  • Age-the risk increases as you get older
  • Sex- more common in males
  • Genetics- your risk for sleep apnea increases if you have a family member with sleep apnea
  • Anatomy -large tonsils, small throat, a thick neck or large tongue
  • Endocrine disorders or changes in hormones such as menopause
  • Lifestyle habits- alcohol and smoking
  • Heart or kidney failure
  • Medications such as narcotics

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: June 7, 2024

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