Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Risk Factors and Complications

Sleeping disorders are gradually becoming a part and parcel of the modern world. More and more people are getting into the rut of sleep disorders, thanks to the modern diet and stressful lifestyle. Increasing screen time is also seen as an important factor affecting people’s sleep patterns. In this article, we are discussing sleep apnea, one of the potentially serious sleep disorders.

Sleep Apnea: An Overview

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which the breathing of a person is interrupted during sleep. While asleep breathing of the person stops and starts repeatedly. If not treated on time it may cause various issues like –

  • Loud snoring
  • Daytime tiredness
  • High blood pressure
  • Some heart ailments like cardiomyopathy
  • Stroke

Though snoring is one of the important indicators for sleep apnea, snoring does not automatically means that the person is affected by sleep apnea.

Types of Sleep Apnea

Depending on the reason behind the apnea, there are mainly two types of sleep apnea. However, there is also a third category of sleep apnea that many classify as the third type of sleep apnea.

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea – This is the most common type of sleep apnea. It happens when the upper airway gets blocked repeatedly, fully or partially, during sleep. This typically happens when the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapses. This collapsing of the soft tissue lowers the flow of oxygen to vital organs and the diaphragm and chest muscles of the person need to work harder to open the airways.
  • Central Sleep Apnea – In this type of sleep apnea, breathing is not interrupted due to blockage of the airway but because the brain fails to instruct the muscles to breathe. This means central sleep apnea is caused due to an issue in the respiratory control system of the body. This happens mostly to individuals with neuromuscular diseases or with other complications like stroke, heart, kidney, or lung diseases.

In addition to the two above-mentioned sleep apneas, there is a third category called ‘complex sleep apnea syndrome’. In medical terms, it is also called treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. This is the condition where the person has both obstructive and central sleep apnea together.

illustration showing a person using cpap machine for treatment of sleep apnea.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

The most common symptoms that may indicate that a person has sleep apnea are listed below. However, none of the symptoms can be seen as a sure sign of sleep apnea. Moreover, you should not diagnose yourself to have sleep apnea or any other disease for that matter; let the doctor do it for you. If you notice the following symptoms you should seek a doctor’s advice.

  • Loud snoring
  • Frequent gaps in breathing
  • Gasping for air while asleep
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Waking up suddenly gasping or choking
  • Morning headaches
  • Difficulty in sleeping at night
  • Feeling of sleepiness all through the day
  • Lack of concentration
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Constant urge to pee at night
  • Night sweats

Risk Factors

Though anyone, even small kids, can have sleep apnea there are certain factors that increase the risk of sleep apnea. Listed below are the factors that increase the risk of sleep apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

  • A narrowed airway – People with narrowed airways, either structurally or due to any underlying issue, are at higher risk of sleep apnea. Some people may have a narrow throat by birth. Conditions like enlargement of tonsils or adenoids can also block the airway, especially in young children.
  • Obesity – An excess weight is considered to be a root cause of many health issues including sleep apnea. Fat deposits around the upper airway can obstruct breathing and may result in obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Being male – The reasons are unknown but males are two times likely to get sleep apnea. The risk for women increases when they gain excess weight especially after menopause.
  • Being old – People of all age gets sleep apnea but older adults are more likely to develop the condition.
  • Family history – Having a family history of sleep apnea increases a person’s chance of developing sleep apnea.
  • Substance abuse – Smoking, alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers all increases the risk of sleep apnea when not used in moderation. These substances relax the throat muscle and increase the chance of sleep apnea. Smokers are three times more likely to get sleep apnea than non-smokers.
  • Nasal congestion – If a person has difficulty in breathing, regardless of the cause, the person is at higher risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Other medical conditions – Various medical conditions such as heart failure, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, lung disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, etc. increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea.

Central Sleep Apnea

  • Old age – An increasing age in adults increases the risk of sleep apnea.
  • Being male – Male are at twice the risk of developing sleep apnea as compared to females.
  • Heart disorders – Various heart disorders, like congestive heart failure, increase the risk of central sleep apnea.
  • Opioid medicines – Persons who use opioid medications, used for withdrawals and cravings, are at higher risk of developing central sleep apnea in the long run.
  • Stroke – A person who had a stroke is at risk of getting central sleep apnea or complex sleep apnea complex.

Complications Caused due to Sleep Apnea

The human body is a complex machine. One issue or a disease results in the occurrence of other complications. Heart problems may increase the risk of sleep apnea and sleep apnea may become a cause of other heart issues. It’s a vicious cycle. Given below are the complications caused due to sleep apnea.

  • Daytime fatigue – If sleep apnea goes untreated it may result in constant daytime fatigue. Sleep, as you must know, is important for relaxing and rejuvenating the body. A person with sleep apnea struggles to get proper restoring sleep hence feels constant daytime fatigue and related issues like drowsiness, irritability, lack of concentration, etc. The more severe the sleep apnea the more impaired the daytime gets for the person.
  • High blood pressure – Frequent sudden drops in blood oxygen level during sleep increases the blood pressure level for the person.
  • Heart problems – Obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of recurrent heart attacks and abnormal heartbeats. A person already having heart complications may meet sudden death due to an abnormal heartbeat.
  • Stroke – A person with sleep apnea is at risk of getting a sudden stroke.
  • Type 2 diabetes – Sleep apnea increases the chance of a person to get insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
  • Liver problems – A lack of sleep due to sleep apnea may result in liver complications like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
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