Sleep Apnea Frequently Asked Questions

Millions of people are living with sleep apnea. Whether you have sleep apnea or know someone who does, here is a guide to the basics.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder related to breathing. With sleep apnea, breathing is interrupted for short periods while a person sleeps. These periods last for at least 10 seconds. People with sleep apnea tend to snore loudly and make gasping or snorting noises in their sleep.1,2

Who gets sleep apnea?

In the United States, around 30 million people have sleep apnea. It is estimated that around 1 in 4 US adults (ages 30 to 70) has sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is more common in men, but women and children have sleep apnea too. And rates of sleep apnea increase in women after menopause.  As many as 20 percent of children who snore frequently have sleep apnea.3-8

What are the types of sleep apnea?

There are a few types of sleep-related breathing disorders, or breathing problems that happen while you sleep, including:1,2,9-11

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  • Obstructive sleep apnea – a temporary stop or reduction in breathing during sleep caused by tissue blocking the airway. It causes heavy snoring, choking, and gasps while sleeping. This is the most common sleep-related breathing disorder.
  • Central sleep apnea – a temporary stop in breathing during sleep caused when the heart or brain does not send a signal to breathe.
  • Sleep-related hypoventilation disorders – low blood oxygen levels during sleep.

What causes obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a soft tissue block in the upper airway. When you sleep, the muscles in the upper airway relax. This causes the tissues in the back of the throat to collapse or the tongue to fall back, which limits the amount of air reaching your lungs. Snoring is caused by the tissue moving back and forth as you breathe.12

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

To diagnose you with sleep apnea, your doctor will conduct a physical exam and take your medical history first. This is done to make sure your symptoms are not caused by another health condition. Your doctor may also ask you questions from the STOP-Bang test or Epworth Sleepiness Scale. A laboratory sleep study or home sleep apnea test will also be needed to diagnose sleep apnea. A home study may be an alternative for people who do not have a complicated case or who may have moderate to severe sleep apnea.13

How is sleep apnea treated?

Obstructive sleep apnea can be treated with a combination of lifestyle changes like weight loss or exercise, devices like oral appliances or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines to help with breathing, and sometimes surgery. Central sleep apnea is normally treated by addressing the underlying health condition causing it but can also be treated with positive air pressure (PAP) machines.14

How can I manage life with sleep apnea?

Living with a chronic sleep disorder like sleep apnea often impacts a person’s entire life. Long-term health, school, work, friendships, and intimacy may all suffer if sleep apnea is left untreated. The good news is that treatment and lifestyle changes such as improving sleep habits, quitting smoking, healthy eating, and exercise can improve, or even reverse, the negative aspects caused by sleep apnea.

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