Sleep apnea is a condition where your airways narrow or close during sleep, stopping airflow and causing apneas—short periods when you're not breathing. Apneas often happen repeatedly throughout the night, interrupting your sleep and leaving you tired after you wake up. Often people with obstructive sleep apnea don't know they have the disorder.

Some individuals have a less common condition called central sleep apnea. This occurs when the brain does not always send necessary signals to breathe during sleep, causing signs and symptoms similar to obstructive sleep apnea. Both types of sleep apnea share symptoms, diagnostic testing and management needs.

Key Facts

  • Sleep apnea is a common condition that is becoming more widespread.
  • About 10 to 30% of adults in the U.S. may have sleep apnea. Your risk increases with age and weight.
  • Because sleep is interrupted, people with sleep apnea usually are sleepy during the day and sometimes feel irritable, forgetful, unable to concentrate or less alert.
  • Sleep apnea is associated with developing high blood pressure, stroke, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, cardiac rhythm disturbances and difficulty controlling blood sugar levels.
  • Motor vehicle accidents are at least twice as likely to happen when people with sleep apnea are behind the wheel. When the disorder is treated, this increased risk disappears.

How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Body

Sleep apnea occurs when the muscles and soft tissue at the back of the throat relax too much and collapse while you're sleeping. This allows the soft tissues and the tongue to block your airway and 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 throughout the night—often you don't even realize it is happening.

Daytime sleepiness, 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 seven to nine hours each night. This is because waking up so often prevents high-quality sleep. In addition to being sleepy during the day, 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 and result in early death.

Who Is at Risk?

Anything that narrows the airways results in more risk of having sleep apnea. You may inherit a naturally small throat, enlarged adenoids or tonsils. The most common risk factor is obesity because fatty tissue in your breathing passage reduces the space for air to pass through. This makes it easier for your breathing passage to collapse while you sleep. However, people who aren't overweight can have sleep apnea.

Adult sleep apnea becomes more frequent as you age, starting in young adulthood until you are in your 60s and 70s. It has also been found that sleep apnea is two to three times more common for men than premenopausal women. Postmenopausal women have a similar risk for obstructive sleep apnea as men.

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

Page last updated: October 24, 2020

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