What is sleep apnea?
Anatomy of a sleep apnea episode
As airflow stops during a sleep apnea episode, the oxygen level in your blood drops. Your brain responds by briefly disturbing your sleep enough to kick start breathing—which often resumes with a gasp or a choking sound. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, you probably won’t remember these awakenings. Most of the time, you’ll stir just enough to tighten your throat muscles and open your windpipe. In central sleep apnea, you may be conscious of your awakenings.
Types of sleep apnea
- Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the soft tissue in the back of your throat relaxes during sleep and blocks the airway, often causing you to snore loudly.
- Central sleep apnea is a much less common type of sleep apnea that involves the central nervous system, occurring when the brain fails to signal the muscles that control breathing. People with central sleep apnea seldom snore.
- Complex sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea signs and symptoms
It can be tough to identify sleep apnea on your own, since the most prominent symptoms only occur when you’re asleep. But you can get around this difficulty by asking a bed partner to observe your sleep habits, or by recording yourself during sleep.
Major signs and symptoms of sleep apnea
If pauses occur while you snore, and if choking or gasping follow the pauses, these are major signs that you have sleep apnea.
Another common sign of sleep apnea is fighting sleepiness during the day, at work, or while driving. You may find yourself rapidly falling asleep during the quiet moments of the day when you’re not active. Even if you don’t have daytime sleepiness, talk with your doctor if you have problems breathing during sleep.
Other common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea
- Morning headaches
- Memory or learning problems and not being able to concentrate
- Feeling irritable, depressed, or having mood swings or personality changes
- Waking up frequently to urinate
- Dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up
Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea in children
While obstructive sleep apnea can be common in children, it’s not always easy to recognize. In addition to continuous loud snoring, children with sleep apnea may adopt strange sleeping positions and suffer from bedwetting, excessive perspiration at night, or night terrors.
If you suspect your child may have sleep apnea, consult a pediatrician who specializes in sleep disorders. Once obstructive sleep apnea is diagnosed, surgery to remove the child’s tonsils or adenoids usually corrects the problem.
Unless our bed partner is disrupting our sleep, most of us don’t think of snoring as something to be overly concerned about. But frequent, loud snoring may be a sign of sleep apnea, a common and potentially serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts as you sleep. Although sleep apnea is treatable, it often goes unrecognized. Learning how to identify the warning signs, how to distinguish it from normal snoring, is the first step to overcoming sleep apnea and getting a good night’s sleep.