Not sleeping soundly? Recognizing the symptoms of sleep apnea


If you snore, or sleep with a partner who snores, you’re in good company. About half of all Americans snore regularly, according to the Sleep Foundation.

For many, snoring results from temporary issues (nasal congestion or alcohol consumption), a sleeping position or natural anatomy. But habitual snoring can also be a symptom of sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that could cause more serious health conditions.

Keep in mind, snoring isn’t the only warning sign of sleep apnea. And not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Knowing what to look for could help you get treatment, prevent health problems and get a good night’s sleep. Here’s what you need to know:

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder marked by pauses in your breathing while you sleep. Each pause can last 10 seconds or more, and they may happen up to a dozen times an hour. With every occurrence, the brain rouses the sleeper to get breathing started again. When breathing resumes it may cause a snore, gasp or choking sound. Even if the breathing pauses don’t fully wake you, the constant disturbances can result in poor, fragmented sleep.

The types of sleep apnea include:

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea, affecting more than 25 million Americans. With this condition, your airway becomes completely or partially blocked while you sleep (often by the tongue or relaxed throat muscles). The blockage limits the amount of air reaching the lungs. As the air squeezes through, it can cause loud snoring.

You are more at risk for OSA if you are male, overweight or have a family history of small airways. Children can also develop OSA if they have enlarged tonsils or adenoids.

Central sleep apnea

Like OSA, central sleep apnea disturbs your breathing while you sleep, but not because of a blocked airway. Instead, your brain fails to signal your breathing muscles correctly, causing breathing to be slow and shallow. Breathing can even stop momentarily. You may awaken with shortness of breath or have difficulty falling or staying asleep.

According to the Sleep Foundation, you may be more likely to develop central sleep apnea if you have a heart condition, use narcotics or have had a stroke.

Complex sleep apnea

If you have both OSA and central sleep apnea, it’s called complex sleep apnea. For some people, treatment for central sleep apnea can cause OSA to develop. That type of complex sleep apnea is called treatment emergent central sleep apnea.

What are the warning signs of sleep apnea?

The symptoms and signs of OSA and central sleep apnea often overlap. If you have any symptoms, your primary care physician can connect you with testing for sleep apnea.

The symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Awaking with a dry mouth
  • Choking or gasping during sleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Fatigue or excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
  • Frequent need to wake and urinate (nocturia)
  • Loud snoring
  • Morning headaches

Why you shouldn’t ignore sleep apnea symptoms

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, sleep apnea is dangerous if left untreated. The ongoing drowsiness can cause people to fall asleep at inappropriate times, including while driving or operating heavy machinery.

Untreated sleep apnea can also lead to other health problems including:

  • Atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat)
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Stroke

Obstructive sleep apnea test and treatment

If you think you may have sleep apnea, the first step is to see your primary care physician for an evaluation. Your doctor will likely refer you to a sleep specialist, who will make a diagnosis after a sleep study conducted either at home using special equipment or during an overnight visit to a sleep lab.

There are many ways to treat sleep apnea. The approach depends on your physician, diagnosis, health and lifestyle. Treatment for sleep apnea includes:

  • Breathing devices, such as positive airway pressure (PAP) machines that deliver pressurized air through a mask as you sleep
  • Lifestyle changes to assist with weight loss or promote a better sleep position
  • Medication to help control excessive daytime sleepiness or reduce nasal congestion
  • Neuro-stimulation therapy, which uses implants to stimulate muscles in the mouth or chest to help breathing continue seamlessly
  • Oral appliances, which are mouthpieces that hold the lower jaw forward to keep your airway open while you sleep
  • Surgery to treat whatever is causing your airway blockage

If you are having trouble sleeping or suspect you have sleep apnea, speak to your primary care provider. You can find more information on UCLA Health sleep medicine physicians and sleep disorders treatments on our medical services page.