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What are the Best Medications for Sleep Apnea?

Published February 9th, 2022 by Erik Rivera
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Chris Riley

Sleep Apnea 101 | Symptoms | Medications | Side effects | Other treatments

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that affects many people and can cause many health problems.

When you have sleep apnea, you stop breathing air during sleep, which can lead to poor sleep quality and daytime sleepiness.

There are several medications that doctors have prescribed for sleep apnea, but how do they work and will they work for everyone?

In this article, we will discuss the different types of medications available for sleep apnea and what you can do to improve your sleep quality to get restorative sleep.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing during sleep.

This can happen multiple times an hour, which means your body doesn't get the oxygen it needs.

Not only will this disrupt your sleep, but it can also lead to other health problems such as a headache, elevated blood pressure, sleepiness during the day, heart attack, cardiovascular disease, and more.

There are three main types of sleep apnea, central sleep apnea (CSA), obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and complex sleep apnea syndrome which is formerly known as mixed sleep apnea or MSA.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea and occurs when the muscles in your throat relax and block your airway, causing sleep interruptions.

Central sleep apnea is less common and occurs when the brain doesn't send the right signals to your breathing muscles which causes you to stop breathing.

Complex sleep apnea syndrome is a combination of both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea.

sleep apnea medications

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

The main symptoms of sleep apnea are loud snoring, pauses in your breathing, and daytime fatigue or sleepiness which can also be called excessive daytime sleepiness or EDS.

However, not everyone who has sleep apnea will experience all of these symptoms.

Some other common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Insomnia, sleep disturbances, or restless sleep
  • Choking or gasping while sleeping
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or dry throat
  • Morning headache
  • Irritability and mood swings due to not having a restive sleep

If you suffer from these common signs and believe you may have sleep apnea you should talk to your doctor.

Are there medications I can take for sleep apnea?

Unfortunately, sleep apnea isn't something you can simply take a pill for to make it go away.

However, there are medications that may be prescribed by your doctor to help with the effects of sleep apnea such as sleepiness and insomnia.

Your doctor will evaluate your current medications before prescribing anything new which could also be interacting with sleep apnea.

Examples of medications that doctors have prescribed for the symptoms of sleep apnea are below.

Medications for wakefulness

Modafinil (Provigil) and armodafinil (Nuvigil) are two drugs that are used to help people stay awake.

These drugs work by blocking the effects of a chemical in the brain called histamine, which makes you feel sleepy.

Medications for sleepiness

There are many different types of sleep medications that can be prescribed to help with sleepiness caused by sleep apnea.

Some examples are below:

  • Benzodiazepines (Ativan, Restoril, Halcion)
  • Zolpidem (Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar and Intermezzo)
  • Valium and other barbiturates
  • Sedatives
  • Tasimelteon (Hetlioz)  

All of these sleep medications work by helping you fall asleep and stay asleep. 

Over-the-counter medications

There are sleep aids that can be bought over-the-counter such as sleep medications and sleep supplements.

Examples of these medications include Sominex, Nytol (diphenhydramine), and Unisom (doxylamine).

These sleep aids may help you fall asleep and stay asleep but shouldn't be used for long periods of time.

Over-the-counter nasal decongestants can also be used to help with nasal congestion.

Examples of over-the-counter nasal decongestants include Afrin, Neo-Synephrine (phenylephrine), and Sudafed (pseudoephedrine).

You should not use any of these medications if you are diagnosed with sleep apnea until you talk to your doctor.

What are the side effects of taking these medications?

Just like any other medication, sleep medications can have side effects.

Some common side effects of sleep medications are:

  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dry mouth

Allergic reactions such as rash, hives, and swelling of the lips, tongue, or face are also possible.

Depression or anxiety caused by sleep medications that are benzodiazepines can happen from taking them as well.

Before taking sleep medications, you should talk to your doctor about the side effects and whether or not the benefits of taking the medication outweigh the risks, what other medications you may be taking, and other medical conditions.

What other treatments do doctors prescribe for sleep apnea?

There are many other treatments doctors can prescribe for sleep apnea that are far more common than the above medications.

These treatment options for sleep apnea include:

CPAP machine

This is the most common treatment for sleep apnea and it stands for continuous positive airway pressure.

A CPAP machine is a device that blows air into your nose and mouth through a mask while you sleep to keep your airways open so you have the appropriate blood oxygen levels.

This is the most effective treatment for sleep apnea.

Other positive airway pressure machines

A CPAP machine isn't the only positive airway pressure therapy that can be used while you sleep.

A BiPAP, or bilevel positive airway pressure, machine is one that has two different air pressures, one for when you breathe in and the other for when you breathe out.

An APAP, or automatic positive airway pressure machine is different from the other two in that the air pressure is adjusted automatically to how hard you are breathing.

Lastly, an ASV, or adaptive servo-ventilation machine uses algorithms to maintain a steady breathing pattern throughout the night and is mostly used for people suffering from CSA.

Upper airway surgery

If you have sleep apnea caused by the structure of your airway or severe sleep apnea, you may need to undergo surgery to repair it.

The most common types of sleep apnea surgery are septoplasty (for deviated septum), uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) or tonsillectomy, and adenoidectomy.

These procedures remove excess tissue, tonsils, or adenoids from the back of your throat that could be causing blockages.

Oral appliance therapy

A mandibular advancement splint is a device that is worn in your mouth at night and it helps keep your airway open by pushing your jaw and tongue forward.

It is worn similar to a retainer and is also called an oral device or oral appliance.

Sleep positional therapy

There are some sleep positions that are better for people with sleep apnea than others.

The best sleep position for people with sleep apnea is sleeping on your side with a pillow under your neck.

Sleeping flat on one's back should also be avoided as it can make sleep apnea worse, as well as sleep positions that may cause snoring such as sleeping with one's head turned to the side.

Weight loss

Losing weight can help reduce sleep apnea symptoms in people who are overweight or obese.

When you lose weight, there is less excess weight around your neck which can cause sleep apnea.

Is there anything I can do to prevent sleep apnea?

There are a few things sleep apnea sufferers can do to help treat sleep apnea at home.

These include stopping smoking or drinking alcohol close to bedtime as they are known to make sleep apnea symptoms worse.

Using nasal strips and decongestants if you have sleep apnea caused by allergies can also be beneficial.

Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise can also help reduce sleep apnea symptoms by reducing the weight from your body on your upper airway which can help prevent obstructive sleep apnea.

Summary

There are many different sleep apnea medications that a doctor can prescribe, although it isn't a common treatment option for sleep apnea.

The most common sleep apnea treatments are CPAP machines which use a mask to deliver air to your nose and mouth as you sleep.

There are also other positive airway pressure machines, oral devices, and positional sleep therapies, among others that a doctor may prescribe to help treat sleep apnea.

You can also do some things at home to help prevent sleep apnea such as quitting smoking or drinking alcohol before bed, using nasal strips and decongestants if needed, and maintaining a healthy weight.

If you have any other questions we recommend talking to your doctor, sleep specialist, or healthcare provider.


References and Sources:

Science Direct

RxList 

Medscape 

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