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Health Topics - What Is Sleep Apnea?



References

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: National Institute of Health. Diseases & Conditions. Retrieved Aug. 21, 2006 from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/index.htm. Photos courtesy of Respironics.
Normal Airway (Open)

Airway Closed (Sleep Apnea)

Airway with CPAP

Sleep apnea is a common disorder that can be very serious. In sleep apnea, your breathing stops or gets very shallow while you are sleeping. Each pause in breathing typically lasts 10 to 20 seconds or more. These pauses can occur 20 to 30 times or more an hour.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. During sleep, enough air cannot flow into your lungs through your mouth and nose even though you try to breathe. When this happens, the amount of oxygen in your blood may drop. Normal breaths then start again with a loud snort or choking sound.

When your sleep is upset throughout the night, you can be very sleepy during the day. With sleep apnea, your sleep is not restful because:
  • These brief episodes of increased airway resistance (and breathing pauses) occur many times.
  • You may have many brief drops in the oxygen levels in your blood.
  • You move out of deep sleep and into light sleep several times during the night, resulting in poor sleep quality.
People with sleep apnea often have loud snoring. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Some people with sleep apnea don’t know they snore.
  • Sleep apnea happens more often in people who are overweight, but even thin people can have it.
  • Most people don’t know they have sleep apnea. They don’t know that they are having problems breathing while they are sleeping.
  • A family member and/or bed partner may notice the signs of sleep apnea first.
Untreated sleep apnea can increase the chance of having high blood pressure and even a heart attack or stroke. Untreated sleep apnea can also increase the risk of diabetes and the risk for work-related accidents and driving accidents.
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