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Can You Die From Sleep Apnea?

Published February 11th, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Erik Rivera

Sleep Apnea 101 | Symptoms | Risk Factors | Can it cause death | Treatments

You may know what sleep apnea is, but have you wondered if the condition could be life threatening?

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that can increase your risk of sudden death if left untreated.

If you have sleep apnea there will be pauses in breathing while you sleep which can lead to a number of health problems.

In this article, we will discuss the symptoms, risk factors, and treatments for sleep apnea.

Keep reading if you or someone you love has sleep apnea and would like to research treatment options before talking to your doctor or medical professional.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common condition in which your breathing can stop for short periods of time while you sleep.

These pauses can last from at least ten seconds to over a minute and may leave you gasping for air or choking.

When you have sleep apnea, you can also have trouble staying asleep due to these episodes which are called apneas.

The condition can make it hard to sleep well or feel rested when you wake up in the morning which can lead to numerous problems while awake such as having trouble focusing.

There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) - the most common type; it's caused by soft tissue blocking your airway
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA) - is a rarer form and is caused by problems with the brain not sending the signal to your muscles that control breathing
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome - a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea

can you die from sleep apnea

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

If you have sleep apnea, you may not always realize it since you are asleep when it happens, but your bed partner may notice it.

The most common symptoms of sleep apnea can include loud snoring, pauses in your breathing, feeling excessive daytime sleepiness or EDS, morning headaches, having a dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up and problems concentrating.

Other symptoms include difficulty staying asleep and mood swings and irritability due to sleep deprivation and lack of quality sleep.

If you suffer from these symptoms, please talk to your doctor about getting tested for sleep apnea so you can begin treatment as soon as possible if you have it.

What are the risk factors for sleep apnea?

There are a few things that can increase your risk of having sleep apnea.

Being overweight can put you at a higher risk for developing obstructive sleep apnea since the extra tissue can block your airway when you lie down.

Your neck size is also an indicator of the severity of obstructive sleep apnea.

If it's unusually large, then there is more tissue that could potentially get in the way of your airflow.

If you take sleep medicines or sedatives you run the risk of exacerbating sleep apnea because your throat muscles relax and make it more likely for obstruction to occur.

Alcohol can have the same effect as sedatives and should also be avoided.

Nasal congestion from a cold or allergies can also lead to sleep apnea due to your nasal passages being blocked and having to breathe through your mouth.

Other risk factors can include having a family history of sleep apnea, being older than 40, being male, and using tobacco products.

What can happen if your sleep apnea remains untreated?

If you have sleep apnea and do not seek treatment, there are a few medical conditions that can arise.

One of the most serious aspects is that untreated sleep apnea can increase your risk for heart attack or stroke because when you stop breathing, your blood pressure can rise and you increase your heart rate.

You can also develop high blood sugar or diabetes if you have sleep apnea if you're not getting quality rest.

Excessive daytime sleepiness may also increase a risk of injury such as a car accident, fall or injury while at work.

Other risks can include developing a deep vein thrombosis, memory problems, and changes in your mood such as irritability or depression.

In worst case scenarios, sleep apnea can cause congestive heart failure and cardiovascular death. 

How can sleep apnea cause death?

Sleep apnea can cause a number of complications that can lead to death.

If you have cardiovascular problems, sleep apnea can complicate that condition and become fatal.

People can die from obstructive or central sleep apnea due to multiple factors such as a heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke.

The lack of proper oxygen during episodes can lead to these complications which can also be fatal if not treated properly.

When should I see a doctor about sleep apnea?

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of sleep apnea, please talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

You can also ask your doctor if you should be screened for sleep apnea if you are at a higher risk of developing it.

Treatment can help improve your quality of life and prevent any serious health complications from arising.

How do doctors diagnose sleep apnea?

One of the most common ways to diagnose sleep apnea is by participating in a sleep study.

A doctor can recommend that you have a polysomnography, also called a sleep study, which will be taken while you sleep at home or in a sleep lab so a doctor can monitor your sleeping patterns.

This can help your doctor determine if you have any breathing problems and how severe they are.

Other tests can include a split-night study which is usually done if you have been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea and are having trouble tolerating the CPAP machine or an oximeter test which can measure blood oxygen levels.

What are the treatments for sleep apnea?

There are a few different types of treatment options available for sleep apnea, depending on the severity of your condition.

If you have mild sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend that you make some lifestyle changes such as losing weight, avoiding alcohol and sedatives, or positional therapy such as sleeping on your side.

If you have moderate to severe sleep apnea, you will likely need to use a CPAP, or continuous airway pressure, machine while you sleep.

These machines provide you with a continuous stream of oxygen through a mask while you sleep.

There are other positive airway pressure therapies available too, such as BiPAP, or bilevel positive airway, and APAP, or automatic positive airway pressure machines.

The difference is that the latter two use a different air pressure while you are breathing while CPAP machines stay the same pressure.

There are also surgical procedures available if other treatments haven't been successful including a UPPP, or uvulopalatopharyngoplasty which can remove excess tissue in the throat, and a tonsillectomy which can remove enlarged tonsils.

Upper airway stimulation devices can also be used to help with sleep apnea.

These can be implanted in the chest or neck and can stimulate the muscles in your upper airway so you can breathe better while sleeping.

Summary

Sleep apnea can cause a number of health complications when left untreated, the most serious of which is death.

Most people that die from sleep apnea have cardiovascular problems that the disorder complicates and can cause cardiac death.

If you believe you have sleep apnea, your doctor will conduct a sleep study to diagnose it.

There are a few different types of treatment options available for sleep apnea, depending on the severity of your condition including treatments as mild as positional therapy to more serious options such as surgery.

If you have any further questions please talk to your doctor or sleep specialist.

References and Sources:

American Sleep Apnea Association 

American Academy of Sleep Medicine 

Cleveland Clinic 

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