Sleep apnea is a common condition that is thought to affect about 22 million Americans. But just because it is so common does not mean it’s normal. You may be wondering, “is sleep apnea dangerous?” Let’s learn more about this sleep disorder and how you can treat it.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition that’s characterized by pauses in breathing while you sleep. These pauses can last for several seconds to even minutes at a time.
Normally when we sleep air flows smoothly into the nose, through the airway, and into the lungs. But with sleep apnea, the airflow is obstructed, most commonly by the relaxation of tissues in the neck and upper airway.
When we sleep, the tissues in our neck and throat relax. In some people, the relaxation of these tissues, along with the tongue falling back into the airway, can obstruct natural airflow, causing pauses in breathing. This is the most common cause of sleep apnea and is known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
Other than OSA, there is another less common type of sleep apnea known as central sleep apnea. This isn’t caused by obstruction of the airway but happens because the brain isn’t sending messages to your body to breathe. In other words, your body doesn’t even try to breathe because the brain isn’t signaling it to.
Is Sleep Apnea Dangerous?
If left untreated, sleep apnea can be dangerous to your health. Sleep apnea interferes with the intake of oxygen to your body and causes your heart to work even harder. Then when you do wake up, especially if it’s several times a night, your body gets stressed as certain hormones become unbalanced. This can cause high blood pressure, among other problems.
In addition to high blood pressure (hypertension), sleep apnea can also cause heart disease, insulin resistance (which can lead to type 2 diabetes), decreased cognitive function, as well as a reduction in the quality of life. Also, because of fatigue and the decline in cognitive function, someone with sleep apnea is at a higher risk of motor vehicle accidents. 
Sleep Apnea Diagnosis
Because sleep apnea happens during sleep, many people don’t even know they have it. Here are some signs you can look for to see if you might have sleep apnea:
- Daytime fatigue. If you think you slept all night but are waking up feeling like you didn’t sleep at all, it could be a sign that you have sleep apnea.
- Snoring. While not all snoring is dangerous, it can be a sign that you have sleep apnea. Often, people don’t know that they snore until their bed partners tell them they do.
- You wake up gasping. If you notice that you wake up gasping, feel like you’re “choking,” or just trying to get air, that could be a sign that you may have stopped breathing during your sleep.
- Waking up with dry mouth.
- Waking up with morning headaches.
- Your partner notices pauses in your breathing.
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Often, it’s the bed partner that notices the signs of sleep apnea. As much as you may want to ignore what your partner is telling you, it’s best to listen to them and get help from your doctor who can properly diagnose you. Your health is depending on it.
The most common way to diagnose sleep apnea (as well as other sleep conditions) is by having a sleep test known as polysomnography. These tests are usually performed overnight at a sleep center. During the sleep test, you will be hooked up to wires and monitored as you sleep. Sleep technicians will record things like your breathing, oxygen levels, body movements, heart rate, and brain waves.
To diagnose sleep apnea specifically, technicians look at variables known as apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) or respiratory disturbance index (RDI). This basically means that they look at the number of abnormal respiratory events during each hour of sleep, mainly the absence of airflow and reductions in respiratory effort. 
Polysomnography done in sleep centers can be expensive and time-consuming. Because of this, home sleep studies are now becoming more common as technology is allowing for devices that measure these same variables at home.
How to Treat, or Even Cure, Sleep Apnea
Even though having sleep apnea can do harm to your health, there is good news. Sleep apnea is treatable and in many cases, can even be cured.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
Here are some common ways to treat or even reverse OSA:
- CPAP machine. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure and is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. A CPAP consists of a mask (that fits snug over your nose or nose and mouth), a machine, and a hose that connects the machine to the mask. A CPAP delivers a constant pressure to hold the airway open during sleep. The pressure administered can be unique to everyone, so your healthcare provider will prescribe the pressure that’s right for you. A CPAP machine can successfully treat sleep apnea, but will not cure it.
- Weight loss. OSA is the most common of the two types of sleep apnea and quite often is the result of being overweight or obese. When someone has extra fatty tissue around the neck and in the airway, this tissue can collapse and obstruct any air flowing in. Making lifestyle changes (like proper diet and exercise) that lead to weight loss can actually reverse sleep apnea when being overweight is the cause. Also, if you are using a CPAP machine and have lost weight, you may need a different CPAP mask or pressure, so check with your healthcare provider.
- Change your sleep position. Many times sleep apnea is positional, meaning you only stop breathing while lying in a certain position, usually on your back. If this is the case, see what you can do about switching sleep positions. There are wearable devices on the market and even smartphone apps that can help with this.
- Mouthpieces. Mouthpieces are not a suitable treatment for severe sleep apnea but can be beneficial for snoring and for some mild sleep apnea cases. These are appliances worn in the mouth during sleep that move the lower jaw forward to hold the airway open or stabilize the tongue to keep it from falling back.
- Sinus medications/nasal spray. For some people, apnea occurs due to sinus issues. Sometimes over-the-counter sinus medications and nasal sprays can help.
- Surgery. Most cases of sleep apnea do not need treatment to this extreme, but when your anatomy is the cause of sleep apnea (like with a deviated septum), surgery may be an option to consider.
Central Sleep Apnea
Since central sleep apnea is not caused by an obstruction of the airway, different treatment may be needed, although CPAP is sometimes used. Central sleep apnea may be caused from an underlying medical condition, including some neurological diseases or damage done to the brainstem. Treating the medical condition itself may also treat the central sleep apnea.
If you think you may have sleep apnea, the first thing you need to do is talk with your medical provider for a proper diagnosis. Don’t ignore the signs. Sleep apnea can be dangerous if left untreated.