Sleep Apnea Symptoms to Watch For

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a person experiences pauses in their breathing during sleep. These pauses last 10 seconds or longer, and can occur repeatedly throughout the night.

This irregular breathing and lack of oxygen leads to a range of symptoms from snoring to daytime sleepiness to depression. It also puts a person at higher risk for other health complications like hypertension, stroke, eye disorders, and even death.

This article discusses the symptoms and risk factors for sleep apnea.

Man yawning and tired at work.

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What Is Sleep Apnea?

A person with sleep apnea can have up to hundreds of breathing pauses during sleep.

During these pauses, the heart rate drops and the body is deprived of oxygen. Then, the body's startle reflex awakens the person, which often sounds like a gasp or loud snore. This causes the heart rate and blood pressure to rise quickly.

This process is stressful on the body. In addition to interrupted sleep, over time this can lead to blood vessel wall thickening, arrhythmias, and heart dysfunction.

There are different types of sleep apnea, including:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: This is the most common type, where there is a complete or partial upper airway physical blockage during sleep, leading to sleep apnea episodes.
  • Central sleep apnea: In this type, the brainstem does not correctly trigger the body to breathe. Although there is no physical blockage, the person still experiences sleep apnea episodes. This is more frequently reported as insomnia or nighttime awakening.
  • Complex sleep apnea: Also called treatment-emergent sleep apnea, this type develops when a person with obstructive sleep apnea goes on to develop central sleep apnea as a result of a treatment therapy known as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).

Prevalence of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is estimated to occur in 25% of men and 10% of women. It is most common in older men with obesity, but can occur in any person, including babies and children.

Symptoms

Both acute and chronic impacts of sleep apnea lead to a variety of symptoms. People who have greater than 30 breathing pauses per hour are at a higher risk of developing chronic symptoms.

Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Snoring
  • Witnessed pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Daytime tiredness
  • Frequently waking up at night, including sudden awakening with gasping or choking
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Teeth grinding
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Frequent need to urinate at night
  • Heart palpitations or racing heart, particularly at night

Sleep Apnea Symptoms in Children

Children with sleep apnea may present with different symptoms than adults. These can include:

  • Bed wetting
  • Mouth breathing
  • Learning or behavioral disorders
  • Daytime fatigue that can be mislabeled as "laziness" in school
  • Excessive need for napping

Early Warning Signs

Because the person with sleep apnea is asleep when their breathing interruption occurs, it can be challenging for them to identify it.

Therefore, for most people with sleep apnea, the earliest warning sign they notice is increased daytime sleepiness. They may notice this because it's affecting their:

  • Mood
  • Attention span
  • Ability to concentrate
  • Performance at work
  • Interpersonal relationships

Bed sleeping partners and family members should also be aware of sleep apnea warning signs. Loud, chronic snoring is an early warning sign of sleep apnea, although not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.

Pauses in breathing, gasping or choking episodes during sleep, and sudden awakening are other warning signs to look out for.

Risks Factors

There are some well-known risk factors for developing sleep apnea. Some of these are modifiable, meaning you can change them. Others are non-modifiable, meaning you were possibly born with the risk factor (such as biological sex) or are unable to change it (such as age).

Non-modifiable sleep apnea risk factors include:

  • Older age
  • Being assigned male at birth
  • Being Black, Hispanic, or Native American
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Certain genes that affect obesity, inflammation, and structure of the face and skull
  • Larger neck size

Modifiable sleep apnea risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Alcohol intake
  • Smoking
  • Lack of exercise
  • Unhealthy eating patterns

When to See a Doctor

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious health consequences including:

Sleep apnea can also be fatal. Therefore, it's essential to seek diagnosis and treatment if you think you might have sleep apnea.

If you notice any symptoms or early warning signs of sleep apnea, talk to your healthcare provider. For example, if your sleeping partner notices you loudly snoring or gasping in your sleep, mention this to your provider.

Snoring and Sleep Apnea

Not everyone with sleep apnea snores, particularly those with central sleep apnea. Therefore, it's also important that you mention any daytime fatigue or difficulty concentrating to your healthcare provider.

Summary

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that is most likely to affect older men with obesity, but can occur in anyone, including women, children, and babies. Symptoms result from the impact of interrupted breathing during sleep. These include snoring, choking or gasping, insomnia, daytime fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and more. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious health complications, so it's important to identify symptoms early and communicate them to your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Experiencing sleep apnea can be scary for both you and your partner, particularly when it's linked to serious health complications. However, there are many effective treatments for sleep apnea, including manageable lifestyle changes. Be sure to contact your healthcare provider if you experience any symptoms of sleep apnea.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you die from sleep apnea?

    Yes, sleep apnea can be fatal. This is often due to the health complications of having untreated sleep apnea, including respiratory complications or cardiac death due to arrhythmias. A recent study found that people with sleep apnea treated with CPAP have a 5.63 times lower risk of mortality than non-CPAP users.

  • Can sleep apnea be cured?

    In some mild cases of sleep apnea, lifestyle changes can eliminate episodes. There are also many well-researched treatments of sleep apnea, ranging from medication to machines to surgery to positional therapy, that can eliminate symptoms.

  • What does sleep apnea sound like?

    A sleep apnea episode can sound like an episode of silence (as the person pauses breathing), followed by sudden gasping or choking as a person startles awake and starts breathing again. It may also sound like loud, sudden, or chronic snoring.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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