A person with sleep apnea may be unaware that a problem exists. Usually a family member or sleeping partner is the first to recognize the problem.
Common signs of sleep apnea include:
- Loud snoring. Not all people who snore, however, have sleep apnea. People with central sleep apnea may not snore.
- Choking or gasping during sleep
- Sleepiness or being tired during the day. An adult or teen suffering from long-standing severe sleep apnea may fall asleep for short periods of time during the course of daily activities if given a chance to rest.
A person with sleep apnea may also have:
- A dry throat on waking
- A hard time concentrating
- Problems with memory or learning
- A loss of interest in sex
- A need to go to the bathroom often during the night
- Acid reflux
- An increased heart rate
- Mood swings or personality changes, including feeling depressed
- Morning headaches
- Night sweats
Children who have sleep apnea may be extremely sleepy during the day. In some cases, toddlers or young children will behave as if they are hyper or overtired. Children with sleep apnea may be thin and show signs of a failure to thrive (slowed growth). This happens because the child's body burns calories at a high rate to get enough air into the lungs. If there is a blockage in the throat due to swollen tonsils or adenoids, the child may not be able to smell properly. Food doesn't taste as good to them and may even be difficult to swallow.
Causes and Risk Factors
Sleep apnea affects more than 12 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. It affects men, women, older people and children alike.
Some factors, however, make getting sleep apnea more likely. These include:
- Being male. Men are twice as likely to get sleep apnea as women.
- Being older. Obstructive sleep apnea is two to three times more likely in older adults aged 65 or older.
- Being overweight. The extra soft tissue in the throat makes it harder to keep the throat open during sleep.
- Having a family member who has sleep apnea.
- Having a thick neck. A person whose neck is more than 17 inches around has a greater risk of developing sleep apnea.
- Smoking. It may cause inflammation and fluid retention of the throat and upper airways.
Several things can cause sleep apnea, including:
- Overly relaxed muscle tone in the throat that causes the walls of the airway to collapse
- Structural problems of the head, throat and nasal passages
- Heart disease, which is the most common cause of central sleep apnea. People with atrial fibrillation or heart failure have a greater risk of central sleep apnea.
- Neuromuscular disorders. These include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), spinal cord injuries or muscular dystrophy. Each of these conditions can affect how the brain controls breathing.
- Stroke or brain tumor. These conditions can disturb the brain's ability to regulate breathing.
- Excessive drinking of alcohol or use of sedatives or tranquilizers. These may relax the muscles of the throat too much, interfering with normal breathing and sleep.
- Having Down Syndrome. A little more than half the people who have Down Syndrome also have sleep apnea. A person with Down Syndrome may have a more relaxed muscle tone than other people and a relatively narrow nose and throat and large tongue.
- Colds, infections or allergies that cause nasal congestion or swelling of the throat or tonsils. Some viruses such as Epstein-Barr can cause the lymph glands to swell. Sleep apnea due to these types of blockages usually only lasts a short period of time.
- Enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Children with obstructive sleep apnea usually have this problem. It can be corrected with a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy.
- High altitude, if you aren't accustomed to it. This usually goes away as the body adapts to the higher altitude or if you move to a lower altitude.