Sleep apnea is when someone temporarily stops breathing while sleeping. There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea. In obstructive sleep apnea, the structure of the upper airways causes a physical obstruction of breathing. In central sleep apnea, the nervous system has trouble either creating or delivering the signal to breathe. In complex sleep apnea, someone suffers from both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
Whether someone is suffering from central vs. obstructive sleep apnea, the temporary pause in breathing while asleep can be dangerous. Here are some of the signs of sleep apnea to look for.
Medically speaking, signs are objective results of medical conditions that are observable by others, while symptoms are the subjective experiences of the person suffering from the condition. The most obvious sign of sleep apnea is what is literally called an apnea, or temporary cessation of breathing, that occurs during sleep. This is often followed by a slight stirring in the person that has stopped breathing, and breathing resumes after a moment. This may be observed by a sleep partner, or may be diagnosed during a sleep observation study.
While catching an apnea as it happens is definitely proof of sleep apnea, there are other signs that indicate someone may be experiencing sleep apnea. Snoring is a key indicator of obstructive sleep apnea, as the partial obstruction of the airways that produces snoring may lead to a total obstruction. Following an apnea, someone with sleep apnea may gasp for air while sleeping.
Sleepiness, grogginess, inattentiveness, or irritability during the day is a sign of both central and obstructive sleep apnea. The structure of natural sleep is disrupted by sleep apnea, which means someone that is suffering from sleep apnea will not get as much high-quality sleep as they need. Although the hours spent in bed may be sufficient, they may be getting fitful sleep that is not very restful. Dry mouth or headaches upon waking are also signs of sleep apnea. 
Many sleep apnea signs and symptoms could also be caused by other conditions. If you suspect that you may be experiencing sleep apnea, you should schedule a sleep observation study. During a sleep study, you will be observed sleeping and monitored closely. Any disruption of breathing will be readily apparent.
The fatigue and inattentiveness caused by sleep apnea increases the risk of accidents, which can result in harm to oneself or others. Longer term complications include raised blood pressure or cardiovascular stress due to the body’s natural responses to lowered oxygen levels during an apnea. Metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes are also common complications from sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea can have short-term and long-term causes. Acute onset central sleep apnea has been observed in people using opioids for pain management. Obstructive sleep apnea can start suddenly following the ingestion of alcohol.
It is possible to treat obstructive sleep apnea without using medication or cumbersome sleeping equipment, such as a CPAP machine. Short-term solutions like avoiding alcohol before bed, or even simply adjusting your sleeping position, may be sufficient to reduce obstructive sleep apnea. Being overweight is the most highly correlated of all obstructive sleep apnea risk factors, so long-term lifestyle changes that reduce weight may reduce or eliminate obstructive sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea disrupts sleep. Every time breathing is obstructed, the body responds by disrupting sleep in order to deal with sudden loss of air. Instead of natural and healthy sleep, someone suffering from sleep apnea has frequent periods of near waking throughout the night. While this doesn’t produce the exact same health effects as sleep deprivation, it does result in sleep fragmentation. Sleep fragmentation produces daytime sleepiness or grogginess, which is why grogginess can be a key sleep apnea symptom.
Snoring is a possible sign of obstructive sleep apnea because snoring and obstructive sleep apnea are both a result of soft tissues blocking the upper airways. In snoring, the blockage is partial, so the air pushing past the soft tissues causes an audible vibration. In obstructive sleep apnea the blockage temporarily becomes complete, stopping breathing. Since the physiological difference between snoring and obstructive sleep apnea is simply the degree of obstruction, snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.