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Sleep apnea

What is Sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious breathing problem that interrupts your sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea means you have short pauses in your breathing when you sleep. These breathing pauses – called apneas or apnea events – last for 10 to 30 seconds, maybe longer. People with obstructive sleep apnea can stop breathing dozens or hundreds of times each night. Obstructive sleep apnea (also called OSA or obstructive sleep apnea-hypopnea syndrome) stops you from having the restful sleep you need to stay healthy. If it’s not treated, sleep apnea can lead to major health problems, accidents, and early death.

Types of sleep apnea

There are two major types of sleep apnea. They are

  • Central sleep apnea
  • Sleep-hypoventilation syndrome.
  • How obstructive sleep apnea affects your breathing?

    Obstructive sleep apnea stops you from breathing normally at night. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, the following happens while you sleep:

    • First, you may sleep quietly and breathe normally. The air in your airway (breathing tube) flows easily to your lungs.
    • Then, you begin to snore loudly. This is a sign that your airway is partly blocked. A partly blocked airway means less air can get through to your lungs, and your oxygen level drops. (When doctors see this kind of drop in oxygen level in a sleep test, they call it a hypopnea.)
    • Next, your airway closes off completely. No air reaches your lungs. Your brain is telling you to breathe as usual, but you can’t take in a breath because your airway has closed off. This is called apnea. After a pause of 10-30 seconds or more, your brain realizes you haven’t been breathing, so it jolts you awake enough for you to take a breath. You take in a big gasp of air and start breathing again.

    This cycle can continue through the night: you breathe quietly; you snore; you have a pause in your breathing; you gasp for breath; and you start breathing again. Most people have dozens or hundreds of sleep apnea events a night. This means dozens or hundreds of interruptions of sleep. You can’t get the restful sleep you need to be healthy.

    The combination of both apnea events (pauses in breathing) and hyponea events (partly blocked breathing) is called obstructive sleep apnea-hyponea syndrome OSAHS).

    What can make a person’s airway collapse during sleep?

    There are a few reasons why a person’s airway can partly or completely collapse during sleep. They are

    • The throat muscles are too relaxed to hold the airway open
    • The tongue blocks the airway
    • Fatty tissue blocks the airway
    • The airway is narrow

    Who's most at risk for obstructive sleep apnea?

    Anyone of any age can get obstructive sleep apnea. The risk is higher if a person has a combination of the following risk factors.

  • Obesity (very overweight).
  • Family history of obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Men are more susceptible than women.
  • A person who is older than 40.
  • Person having large tonsils.
  • Signs and symptoms

    The two main symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea are:

    • Feeling very sleepy during the day for unknown reasons
    • Snoring and having pauses in breathing while sleeping

    Some other signs and symptoms that might occur as a result of obstructive sleep apnea are

    • High blood pressure
    • Irritable (easily irritated) at times
    • Gasp or choke during sleep
    • Feel very tired (fatigue) and depressed
    • Can’t concentrate
    • Have headaches in the mornings
    • Face memory problems/ memory loss

    Related resources

    1. Central sleep apnea
    2. Sleep hypoventilation syndrome


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