Without treatment, sleep apnea can lead to serious complications.
It may lead to or worsen several life-threatening conditions, including:
Sleep apnea causes hypoxia (a low oxygen level in the body). When this happens, your body becomes stressed and reacts with a fight-or-flight response, which causes your heart to beat faster and your arteries to narrow.
Heart and vascular effects include:
- higher blood pressure
- higher heart rate
- higher blood volume
- more inflammation and stress
These effects increase the risk of cardiovascular problems.
A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that having sleep apnea can raise your risk of a stroke by two or three times.
A 2007 study from Yale School of Medicine warns that sleep apnea can increase the chance of heart attack or death by 30 percent over a period of four to five years.
According to a 2013 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, people with sleep apnea have a higher risk of death from related cardiac complications. The study found that sleep apnea can increase the risk of sudden cardiac death.
This is most likely if you:
- are older than 60 years of age
- have 20 or more apnea episodes per hour of sleep
- have a blood oxygen level of less than 78 percent during sleep
According to a 2011 medical review, up to 60 percent of people with heart failure also have sleep apnea. Adults in the study who were also treated for sleep apnea had a better two-year survival rate than those who were not. Sleep apnea can cause or worsen heart conditions.
The National Sleep Foundation notes that people with sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythm) have only a 40 percent chance of needing further heart treatment if both conditions are treated.
If sleep apnea remains untreated, the chance of needing further treatment for atrial fibrillation goes up to 80 percent.
Another study at Yale linked sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes. It found that adults with sleep apnea had more than double the risk of getting diabetes as compared to people without sleep apnea.
There are three main types of sleep apnea:
- Central sleep apnea. This type happens when your brain doesn’t send the right signals to the muscles that control your breathing.
- Obstructive sleep apnea. This is the most common type and happens when your airway narrows or becomes blocked.
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome. This is a combination of central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea.
All types of sleep apnea have similar symptoms. You may experience:
- loud snoring
- pauses in breathing
- snorting or gasping
- dry mouth
- sore throat or coughing
- insomnia or difficulty staying asleep
- the need to sleep with your head raised
- headaches upon waking up
- daytime fatigue and sleepiness
- irritability and depression
- mood changes
- memory problems
Can you have sleep apnea without snoring?
The most well-known symptom of sleep apnea is snoring when you sleep. However, not everyone who has sleep apnea snores. Similarly, snoring doesn’t always mean you have sleep apnea. Other causes of snoring include sinus infection, nasal congestion, and large tonsils.
While you sleep, you must wear a CPAP mask that is connected by tubing to the running device. It uses air pressure to hold your airway open.
Another wearable device for sleep apnea is one that delivers bilevel positive airway pressure (BIPAP).
- losing extra weight
- quitting tobacco smoking (this is often difficult, but a doctor can create a cessation plan that’s right for you)
- avoiding alcohol
- avoiding sleeping pills
- avoiding sedatives and tranquilizers
- using a humidifier
- using nasal decongestants
- changing your sleep position
You may not be aware that you have sleep apnea. Your partner or another family member may notice that you snore, snort, or stop breathing during sleep or that you wake up suddenly. See a doctor if you think you might have sleep apnea.
Tell a doctor if you wake up tired or with a headache or feel depressed. Watch for symptoms like daytime fatigue, drowsiness, or falling asleep in front of the TV or at other times. Even mild sleep apnea can disrupt your sleep and lead to symptoms.
Sleep apnea is closely linked to several life-threatening conditions. It may cause or worsen chronic illnesses like high blood pressure. Sleep apnea can lead to sudden cardiac death.
If you have a history of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, or another chronic illness, ask your doctor to test you for sleep apnea. Treatment may include getting diagnosed at a sleep clinic and wearing a CPAP mask at night.
Treating your sleep apnea will improve your quality of life and may even help save your life.