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Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

Published January 12th, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

What is sleep apnea | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with a dry mouth and feeling like you've been running? If so, you may have signs of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes breathing to stop or become very shallow for periods of time while sleeping. It affects millions of people each year, but it's not always easy to diagnose because signs can vary from person to person. We'll explain what signs are common for sleep apnea patients, how doctors diagnose the condition, and treatments available for those who suffer from it.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea, also known as sleep apnoea, is a sleep disorder that affects breathing. The signs of sleep apnea may be subtle, but if left untreated sleep apnea can become more severe or even life-threatening. If you have sleep apnea you will stop breathing for brief periods during sleep. This can lead to many adverse effects, including poor quality of sleep, morning headaches, and daytime drowsiness.

There are two types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the more common type, and it occurs when the airway becomes blocked during sleep. Central sleep apnea is less common, and it occurs when the brain fails to send the correct signals to the muscles that control breathing. It is also possible for someone to suffer from both, a condition called mixed sleep apnea.

what are the warning signs of sleep apnea

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

The signs of sleep apnea vary from person to person and depend on the severity of the disorder. However, there are several signs of sleep apnea symptoms that may indicate a problem:

  • Snoring or heavy breathing during sleep
  • Brief pauses in breathing during sleep, which are called apneas
  • Daytime drowsiness and fatigue
  • Dry or sore throat in the mornings when you wake up due to mouth breathing
  • Poor sleep quality and having restless sleep that can lead to insomnia
  • Morning headache
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Forgetfulness
  • Dizziness after you wake up, possibly due to a low oxygen level

These are some of the most common symptoms although there are others. If you are experiencing any of these common warning signs, it is important to see a doctor so you can treat it and get restorative sleep.

How do doctors diagnose sleep apnea?

The diagnosis of sleep apnea is usually made based on your symptoms and by conducting a physical examination and sleep study with a sleep specialist. Your doctor may also order some tests, such as an overnight polysomnography or home sleep study. This is a test that monitors your breathing, heart rate, oxygen levels, and other signs during sleep. The results of the sleep study can help your doctor determine the type of sleep apnea you have and the best treatment for you.

To perform the sleep study, you may be asked to spend the night at a sleep clinic or hospital. You will be connected to monitors that track your breathing and other signs. The test usually lasts around eight hours but can vary depending on your condition.

What is the treatment for sleep apnea?

There are many treatments available to help treat obstructive sleep apnea. Some of these include:

  • Lifestyle changes such as losing weight or quitting smoking
  • Avoiding alcohol before bedtime
  • Adopting healthy sleeping habits such as avoiding caffeine and eating light at night
  • Using a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. A CPAP is an oral appliance that helps keep your airway open during sleep by providing a steady stream of air through a mask that you wear during sleep.
  • Using a bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) device, which is a machine that has two pressures, one for inhalation and another for exhalation
  • Using an automatic positive airway pressure (APAP) device, which is a machine that adjusts the air pressure automatically to help keep your airway open
  • Surgery to remove excess soft tissues in the throat or nasal passages
  • Taking medications

You can also try different sleeping positions while you sleep in an attempt to keep your airways open. Please also remember to treat any allergies that you may be suffering from as allergies can lead to a stuffy nose and difficulty breathing which can lead to sleep apnea. Also, your doctor may suggest an oral device that you wear like a mouthguard while you sleep that helps keep your airways open while you sleep. There are also surgeries available that can help treat sleep apnea, but these are only used in severe cases.

Are there any adverse effects of sleep apnea?

Yes, there are many adverse effects of sleep apnea. Some of these include poor quality of sleep, morning headaches, daytime drowsiness, sore or dry throat from mouth breathing, and lack of sex drive. Sleep apnea can also lead to other health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Can I prevent sleep apnea?

Yes, there are some things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing sleep apnea. Some of these include:

  • Losing weight if you are overweight or obese
  • Quitting smoking
  • Avoiding alcohol before bedtime
  • Adopting healthy sleeping habits
  • Using a device, whether CPAP, BiPAP, APAP, or an oral sleeping device, if you have signs of sleep apnea

Another way to prevent sleep apnea is by getting vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia, chickenpox, or hepatitis A or B virus. This can help reduce your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea due to weakened throat muscles that are caused by these infections. For more information, talk to your doctor.

Are there certain pillows or beds I can buy to help with sleep apnea?

There are pillows that are designed to help with sleep apnea, although there is no scientific evidence that they help. There are also foam wedge pillows that are used to elevate your torso and head which are recommended for people with sleep apnea to keep the upper airway free. However, you may be able to purchase certain types of mouthpieces that may help reduce signs and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.

While these tips will not treat your sleep apnea, they may provide some relief for signs and symptoms so you feel better during the day. If you are experiencing difficulty breathing at night, snoring, or excessive daytime sleepiness, it is important to speak with your doctor about the possibility of having obstructive sleep apnea and undergo a sleep study to determine if you do have this condition. Only then can you begin treatment and start feeling better by getting a quality night of sleep.

Summary

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that stops you from breathing while you sleep. There are many signs and symptoms of sleep apnea including loud snoring, dry mouth when you wake, and morning headaches, among others. Sleep apnea can be diagnosed with a sleep study in a lab/clinic or at home. Treatment for sleep apnea may include using a CPAP device, surgery, or medications. There are also things you can do to help stop signs and symptoms of sleep apnea such as losing weight, quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol before bedtime, adopting healthy sleeping habits, and using oral devices to help keep your airways open at night. If you are suffering from signs of sleep apnea it is important that you talk to a doctor and get a diagnosis.

References and Sources:

Mayo Clinic 

Hopkins Medicine 

AARP

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