Sleep Apnea


Photo of man sleeping with a sleep apnea machine attached to his face

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea occurs when muscles relax during sleep, causing soft tissue in the back of the throat to collapse and block the upper airway – sometimes for 10 seconds or longer.

A nighttime snore might be obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep.  The result is a reduction in airflow and oxygen to the lungs, causing episodes of gasping, gagging, choking and coughing. 

Sometimes people with sleep apnea wake up and are not aware these episodes are happening multiple times each night. 

Who has sleep apnea?

More than 18 million American adults have sleep apnea, according to the National Sleep Foundation. It can occur in children. African-Americans, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders are at greater risk.

People with asthma are at increased risk of developing sleep apnea. Being overweight, smoking and alcohol use are also risk factors. Sleep apnea also tends to run in families. In some cases, it results from body structure – having a small upper airway, for example, or a recessed chin, small jaw or large neck size.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

Symptoms include:

  • Chronic, loud snoring
  • Intermittent pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Abrupt awakenings with gasping or choking
  • Headache, dry mouth or sore throat in the morning
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty concentrating during the day
  • High blood pressure
  • Mood changes, including depression or irritability

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Keep track of your sleep patterns at night and fatigue levels during the day, and any other symptoms. Ask your bed partner to record snoring levels or if your breathing appears to stop for any length of time.You may want to ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep center, where you can get a precise diagnosis.

How is sleep apnea treated?

Doctors may first recommend lifestyle changes such as avoiding alcohol, quitting smoking and/or losing weight. You may need to stop taking any medications that relax the central nervous system – sedatives or muscle relaxers, for example. Some patients may benefit from special pillows that help them sleep on their side instead of their back.

The primary treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP – continuous positive airway pressure. The patient attaches a face mask that is attached to a tube and respiratory machine that blows pressurized air into the mask and through the airways during sleep. This helps keep the airways open.

Secondary treatments may include:

  • Surgical procedure to widen the airway by removing tissue
  • Dental device to reposition the lower jaw and increase airflow
  • An implant placed in the upper chest to stimulate muscles and restore normal breathing

How can sleep apnea impact asthma?

  • It can cause or worsen gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), an asthma trigger  
  • It can cause swelling and irritation of airways, leading to a nighttime asthma flare