COPD and Sleep Apnea Often Coexist

In This Article

Sleep Apnea
Sleep Apnea. Photo courtesy of Getty Images, user Jeff T. Green

It's not unusual for a person to have both sleep apnea and COPD. But, contrary to popular belief, the presence of sleep apnea is not higher in COPD patients than in the general population. This means their relationship is simply due to chance and not because of an underlying, pathophysiological link. Still, having both disorders at the same time is certainly challenging. If you have COPD and suspect you may have sleep apnea, read on.


Sleep apnea is a serious and sometimes life-threatening sleep disorder that is characterized by periods of apnea (breathing pauses) during sleep. It is often accompanied by loud, disruptive snoring.

During an apneic episode, you may stop breathing for up to 10 seconds or more and, as your blood oxygen levels drop, you may awaken abruptly with a loud gasp or snort. The number of apneic events you experience may be as high as 20 to 30 per night or more, and the effects may lead to serious health complications.


There are three types of sleep apnea: Obstructive, central and mixed. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is most commonly seen in the general population and in people with COPD. OSA occurs when your throat muscles, including your tongue, relax during sleep and block your airway. Because many people who suffer from OSA are overweight, they often have an enlarged tongue and soft palate and/or excess fat in their throat area.

Risk Factors

Although anyone can have sleep apnea, the following risk factors may increase your risk:

  • Being male
  • Being older
  • Being African-American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander
  • Being obese
  • Having a large neck circumference (17" or more for men and 16" or more for women)
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Associated medical conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD), diabetes, or polycystic ovary syndrome


Along with periodic episodes of apnea during sleep and intermittent snoring, symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headache
  • Sore throat
  • Changes in your personality
  • Mental deterioration
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Bed wetting
  • Impotence
  • Obesity
  • Complaints from your partner that you snore too loudly

COPD and Sleep Apnea

Together, COPD and OSA are often coined as overlap syndrome (OS.) Both COPD and OSA are independent risk factors for heart problems that may include irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, and their coexistence in OS may further increase these cardiovascular risks. This makes early identification of OSA in people with COPD extremely important.

People with OS may also have:


Non-surgical treatment options for OSA include:

If you are someone who cannot tolerate CPAP and your OSA is severe, you may want to discuss the following surgical options with your health care provider:

A Word From Verywell

If you have OSA, you may not even be aware of it, especially if you live alone. Paying close attention to your sleep patterns and your daytime symptoms will help you recognize a potential problem. If you think you may have OSA or, if your partner complains that your snoring is intense, it may be time to visit your health care provider for an evaluation and more information.

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Article Sources

  • Pronzato C. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and obstructive sleep apnea: Association, consequences, and treatment. Monaldi Arch Chest Dis. 2010 Dec;73(4):155-61.
  • Victor, Lyle D. M.D. Obstructive Sleep Apnea. American Family Physician. November 15, 1999.