What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea: Overview

Sleep apnea means that you frequently stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer during sleep. It can be mild to severe, based on the number of times an hour that you stop breathing.

Blocked or narrowed airways in your nose, mouth, or throat can cause sleep apnea. Your airway can become blocked when your throat muscles and tongue relax during sleep.

You can help treat sleep apnea at home by making lifestyle changes. You also can use a CPAP breathing machine that keeps tissues in the throat from blocking your airway. You may use a mouth or nose device while you sleep to help keep your airway open. Surgery may be an option for some people. Surgery may be done to implant a nerve stimulation device in the chest that helps keep the airway open. Surgery can also be done to remove enlarged tissues that are blocking the throat.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is breathing that stops during sleep. When people have sleep apnea, they stop breathing and may have breathing that is shallow. The problem can be mild to severe, based on how often your lungs don't get enough air. For adults, mild sleep apnea means that breathing stops 5 to 14 times an hour. Moderate sleep apnea means breathing stops 15 to 29 times an hour. And with severe sleep apnea, breathing stops 30 or more times an hour.

There are two main types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by blocked airways. And central sleep apnea is caused by a problem with how the brain signals the breathing muscles.

Sleep apnea can cause you to snore loudly. People with sleep apnea often have sleep problems and are tired during the day. And they are more likely to have high blood pressure and some heart problems.

What happens when you have sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea can make it hard for you to get good rest. It can make you tired during the day, and it can cause serious health problems. But treatment, like lifestyle changes, breathing machines, and oral or nasal breathing devices, can help. Breathing better at night can help you feel better during the day.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

There are symptoms of sleep apnea that you may notice and symptoms that others may notice when you're asleep.

Symptoms you may notice include:

  • Feeling extremely sleepy during the day.
  • Feeling unrefreshed or tired after a night's sleep.
  • Problems with memory and concentration, or mood changes.
  • Morning headaches.
  • Getting up often during the night to urinate.
  • A dry mouth or sore throat in the morning.

If you have a bed partner, they may notice that you:

  • Have episodes of not breathing.
  • Snore loudly. Almost all people who have sleep apnea snore. But not all people who snore have sleep apnea.
  • Toss and turn during sleep.
  • Have nighttime choking or gasping spells.

Sleep Apnea: How Is It Treated?

Sleep Apnea: Having Trouble With CPAP?

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

Your doctor will probably do a physical exam and ask about your past health. The doctor may also ask you or your bed partner about your snoring and sleep behavior and how tired you feel during the day.

Your doctor may suggest a sleep study. Sleep studies are a series of tests that look at what happens to the body during sleep. They check for how often you stop breathing or have too little air flowing into your lungs during sleep. They also find out how much oxygen you have in your blood during sleep.

A sleep study may take place in your home. Or it might take place at a sleep center, where you will spend the night.

If your sleep apnea doesn't improve with treatment, you may have more tests to find out what's causing it.

How can you care for yourself when you have sleep apnea?

  • Lose weight, if needed.
  • Sleep on your side. It may help mild apnea.
  • Avoid alcohol and medicines such as sleeping pills, opioids, or sedatives before bed.
  • Don't smoke. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor.
  • Prop up the head of your bed.
  • Treat breathing problems, such as a stuffy nose, that are caused by a cold or allergies.
  • Try a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) breathing machine if your doctor recommends it.
  • If CPAP doesn't work for you, ask your doctor if you can try other masks, settings, or breathing machines.
  • Try oral breathing devices or other nasal devices.
  • Talk to your doctor if your nose feels dry or bleeds, or if it gets runny or stuffy when you use a breathing machine.
  • Tell your doctor if you're sleepy during the day and it affects your daily life. Don't drive or operate machinery when you're drowsy.

Sleep Apnea: Time to Get Checked

How are heart failure and sleep apnea connected?

Sleep apnea is fairly common in people with heart failure. Sleep apnea means you stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer during sleep. Types of sleep apnea include central sleep apnea (CSA) and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). CSA is caused by a problem with how the brain signals the breathing muscles. OSA happens when your airway gets blocked while you sleep. Some people have both types.

When you stop breathing, the amount of oxygen in your blood drops, so your heart has to work harder to get enough oxygen to your body's tissues. Your heart failure symptoms may get worse. Sleep apnea may also cause you to snore loudly and not sleep well, so you wake up feeling tired.

Getting treatment for sleep apnea may help you sleep and feel better.

What causes sleep apnea?

There are two main types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by blocked or narrowed airways in your nose, mouth, or throat. Your airway can become blocked when your throat muscles and tongue relax during sleep. Central sleep apnea is caused by a problem with how the brain signals the breathing muscles.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea means that breathing stops for short periods during sleep. This usually occurs because your airways are blocked or partly blocked (obstructive sleep apnea). Sleep apnea makes your heart and blood vessels work harder and can affect your heart rate and nervous system.

Making lifestyle changes to help treat sleep apnea

Lifestyle changes can help treat obstructive sleep apnea. Here are some changes to think about.

  • Lose weight.

    Weight loss should be part of managing sleep apnea. If you are overweight and have sleep apnea, nutritional counseling, daily activity, and other treatments may help.

  • Sleep on your side.

    It may help mild apnea.

  • Prop up the head of your bed.
  • Limit the use of alcohol and medicine.

    Drinking alcohol or taking certain medicines, especially sleeping pills, opioids, or sedatives, before sleep may make symptoms worse.

  • Get plenty of sleep.

    Apnea episodes may be more frequent when you have not had enough sleep.

  • Quit smoking.

    The nicotine in tobacco relaxes the muscles that keep the airways open. If you don't smoke, those muscles are less likely to collapse at night and narrow the airways.

  • Promptly treat breathing problems.

    Things like a stuffy nose caused by a cold or allergies can make apnea worse.

  • Wear compression stockings if your doctor recommends them.

    People who have sleep apnea and tend to have swelling in their lower legs and ankles may be helped by wearing compression stockings during the day. This may prevent a buildup of fluid and swelling of the tissues in the nose and throat at night.

Heart failure and sleep apnea: When to call

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

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