What are the common symptoms? Who gets it?

Snoring and sleep apnea are similar in that they both occur when muscles in the tongue and upper airway relax during sleep and cause either a partial or complete blockage of the airway. When the airway slightly narrows, that’s snoring. Enough to cause vibration in the back of the airway that generates a snoring noise. Sleep apnea is when the airway gets even narrower, and either blocks completely or is narrow enough, that breathing is difficult. The brain senses this during sleep and reacts by trying to breathe harder causing brief awakenings, called arousals, from sleep.

The illustration below shows what is happening in the upper airway with sleep apnea. With the onset of sleep, the tongue falls back towards the back of the airway causing either a partial or complete obstruction.
sleep apnea

What are common symptoms of sleep apnea?

  • Regular snoring or noisy breathing during sleep
  • Variation in breathing during sleep such as pauses or gasping
  • A sense of waking choking or gasping
  • Feeling more tired during the day than expected
  • Having trouble with concentration and memory
  • Feeling irritable or down when we wouldn’t usually expect to be
  • Needing to pass urine often during the night
  • Morning headaches on waking up

Who gets sleep apnea?

sleep apneaSnoring is very common, around 25%, or 1 in 4 men snore. Sleep apnea is less common than snoring, but still common overall. Around 5% of men (1 in 20) and 3% of women (1 in 33), have bad enough sleep apnea that it is causing tiredness that is having an impact on them throughout the day.

Whilst it’s true that men are more likely to have sleep apnea, and being overweight is also a risk for sleep apnea, women and people who are not overweight can also get sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can also look different in women, particularly before the menopause, when it is not always associated with loud snoring or a bed partner noticing changes in breathing. In people who are not overweight sleep apnea can occur if they have a narrow upper airway because of large tonsils or a blocked nose. People with small jaws or an overbite are also at risk of obstructive sleep apnea.


For more details on sleep apnea in women see this post.

Sleep apnea also occurs commonly together with a range of medical conditions such as:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Stroke
  • Depression that isn’t responding to anti-depressants
  • Kidney failure

What are the consequences of sleep apnea?

If left untreated, sleep apnea can have significant short and long term effects:

  • Increased risk of accidents at work or driving (2-7 times greater risk)
  • Feeling tired and having trouble with concentration and memory
  • Increased risk of depression (up to 5 times the risk)
  • Increased risk of stroke (3 times greater risk)
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure (double the risk)
  • Increased risk of heart attack or heart failure (double the risk)

Sleep apnea also exacerbates a range of chronic medical conditions that are associated with sleep apnea including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, atrial fibrillation and depression.

If I think I have sleep apnea, what should I do?

If you have symptoms of sleep apnea or any of the medical conditions that are associated with sleep apnea, you should discuss them with your doctor. They may arrange for you to have a sleep study to determine if sleep apnea is present, and if so, how bad it is, or they may refer you to a sleep specialist.

That is one of the things I do in my day to day practice. Working with people who have symptoms and wonder if they have sleep apnea and whether it is impacting on how they feel and their health.

Related posts and links:

Need more information about how you can sleep better?

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Check our resources or take our Sleep Wellness Quiz for a free assessment of elements that may be keeping you from a good night’s sleep.





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