Always Tired? You May Have Sleep Apnea
Most people who have sleep apnea don’t know they have it because it only occurs during sleep. Sleep apnea is a serious disorder that causes your breathing to stop repeatedly while you sleep. These breathing pauses or “apneas” usually last 10 to 30 seconds and can happen many times throughout the night. Untreated obstructive sleep apnea has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, work-related accidents and depression.
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea in which the upper airway repeatedly becomes blocked, limiting the amount of air that reaches your lungs. When this happens, you may snore loudly or making choking noises as you try to breathe. Your brain and body become oxygen deprived and you may wake up.
Family members or bed partners often recognize the signs of sleep apnea first. Many people with sleep apnea don’t know they’re snoring and gasping for breath at night. If you have any of the following signs, see your doctor:
- daytime sleepiness
- loud snoring followed by silent pauses
- gasping or choking during sleep
- morning headache
- irritability or mood changes
- poor concentration or memory loss
- lowered sex drive
- falling asleep while driving
Sleep apnea is almost twice as common in men as it is in women. Other risk factors include:
- being overweight, as extra fat tissue around the neck makes it harder to keep the airway open,
- being over age 40,
- having a family history of sleep apnea, and
- having a nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies or sinus problem.
Children also get sleep apnea, most commonly between ages 3 and 6. The most common cause is enlarged tonsils and adenoids in the upper airway.
Doctors – often respirologists with an interest in sleep disorders – diagnose sleep apnea based on medical and family histories, a physical exam, and sleep study results. Your primary care doctor may evaluate your symptoms first. He or she will then decide whether you need to see a sleep specialist.
Treatment will depend on whether your sleep apnea is mild, moderate or severe. The most common treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP or continuous positive airway pressure. CPAP involves wearing a special mask while you sleep. The mask keeps the throat open while you sleep and stops the snoring and pauses in breathing.
If you have mild sleep apnea, lifestyle changes might be all the treatment you need:
- Avoid alcohol and medicines that make you sleepy. They make it harder for your throat to stay open while you sleep.
- Lose weight if you’re overweight or obese. Even a little weight loss can improve your symptoms.
- Sleep on your side instead of your back to help keep your throat open. You can sleep with special pillows or shirts that prevent you from sleeping on your back.
- Keep your nasal passages open at night with nasal sprays or allergy medicines, if needed. Talk with your doctor about whether these treatments might help you.
- If you smoke, quit. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking.