Snoring and sleep apnea: what you need to know

How often have you been startled awake at night by your partner snoring away? Have you ever shook your partner, gave them a little kick to stop the snoring or a nudge to see if they were still breathing? If this is you, your partner may have sleep apnea.  

What exactly is sleep apnea?

First off, sleep apnea is a medical condition that needs attention. It is a sleep disorder that causes you to temporarily have periods of involuntary breath holding, and is characterized by loud snoring and episodes of observed pauses in breathing. Now, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, so don’t panic. Sleep apnea is, however, the cause of serious sleep disruptions and can lead to other health problems. According to sleephealth.org, one in five adults suffers from sleep apnea in the US. Sleep apnea not only causes daytime fatigue and mood swings, but can also lead to more serious issues such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cognitive disorders. 

Types of sleep apnea

There are a few types of sleep apnea. Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Central Sleep Apnea are the most common types. Remember, sleep apnea isn’t just snoring. We can help you to determine if you need to be checked out.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of your mouth relax while you are asleep and block your airway. When this happens, your body automatically wakes you up and signals your body to take a big breath, often resulting in a gasp for air. This can occur over and over throughout the night (from a few times to hundreds of times!!) but most people don’t realize it’s actually happening.

Central Sleep Apnea is less common and occurs when your body forgets to signal you to breathe while you sleep. You awaken as you catch your breath.

Both of these types of sleep apnea cause sleep disruption and prevent you from falling into a restful phase of sleep. Your provider can rule out more serious causes and help determine which type you may have.  

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

The most common symptoms of sleep apnea are snoring, waking at night, gasping for air, and apnic episodes (periodic stopped breathing). People with sleep apnea often wake up tired, with headaches, poor concentration, daytime fatigue, poor memory and dry mouth. If your partner is noticing that you are gasping for air at night and/or snoring loudly, you should get checked out for sleep apnea.  If you are waking up at night to the jabs of your partner, ask them, am I snoring loudly? Does it seem like I am not breathing normally?  If the answer is yes, it may be worth getting a sleep evaluation.

How do I know if I need treatment?

If you are experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, it is important to get evaluated. Your provider will determine if there are other causes for your symptoms and order a sleep study if appropriate. Sleep study?? Sounds awful! Don’t fret! 

Sleep studies can now often be done from the comfort of your home (we know that people don’t sleep well in labs!) According to National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute, testing can:

  • Detect apnea events (when your breathing stops or slows during sleep–think breath holding)
  • Detect low or high levels of activity in the muscles that control breathing
  • Monitor blood oxygen levels during sleep
  • Monitor brain and heart activity during sleep

Once you have this data, you will know how severe your sleep apnea is and what treatment you may need.

Is there a treatment for sleep apnea?

The answer to this question is yes! There is treatment and hope that everyone will sleep soundly in their rooms with a little help! The most common treatment for sleep apnea is a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. This machine does exactly what the name says: it gives continuous air pressure to keep your airway open while you sleep. Your provider will determine what pressure you need based on your testing results. They can also help tailor the air flow to allow for the most natural sleep possible while preventing you from having episodes of apnea. 

There are different mask types that administer the flow of air and in most cases, the mask can be worn over just the nose or both the nose and mouth based on your preference for comfort. The goal is that the patient uses the CPAP machine nightly by making it as comfortable as possible while providing the appropriate amount of air flow to best treat your sleep apnea. The machine has become more discrete over the years, making it a very user friendly option. Your provider will recommend settings for your machine based on your specific needs and you should not adjust your recommended settings without medical guidance.

Can I fix my sleep apnea without a machine?

In some cases, a healthy lifestyle can improve symptoms. Things like diet, exercise and weight loss can improve symptoms, especially in obese patients. Stopping smoking and eliminating alcohol before bedtime can also help decrease symptoms. People can decrease risks for many chronic illnesses like sleep apnea by adopting a healthy lifestyle in general.  

Some more invasive options for treatment include surgery, mouth pieces, and in very rare cases when nothing else works and there is risk to the patient, permanent devices in the body.

Can untreated sleep apnea really cause me to have other health problems?

Yes. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to other chronic health conditions. It is important that you take care of your sleep so that you can decrease this risk. Treating sleep apnea is similar to seeking care for any other medical condition, so don’t hesitate. Correcting sleep apnea can improve mood and concentration, reduce blood sugar levels, and decrease risk for stroke and heart attacks, according to John Hopkins Medicine. Treating this medical condition is important to achieve optimal health. Poor sleep, fatigue, and prolonged breath holding results in low oxygen, and can strain other parts of the body such as the heart and lungs. It is important to include sleep health in your plan for a healthy lifestyle. 

Harvard Medical School reports “The sleep disorder is found in 47% to 83% of people with cardiovascular disease, 35% of people with high blood pressure, and 12% to 53% of people with heart failure, atrial fibrillation (a heart rhythm abnormality), and stroke. Researchers estimate that untreated sleep apnea may raise the risk of dying from heart disease by up to five times.” These serious health issues can be decreased with sleep improvements and treatment of sleep apnea.  

Talk to a healthcare provider about your concerns about sleep apnea

Talk to a nurse first or contact your primary care provider if you have one. Snoring, waking at night and poor sleep will not only cause health issues, but also make you moody and tired. If you think that you should get checked, you probably should! Your partner, your pillow and loved ones will thank you!

Kim Liner, PNP

Nurse-1-1 Chief NP

The Nurse-1-1 Health Center is a blog written by nurses, for you. We cover important health information that every person should know, and write it in a straight and honest way. You know that feeling you get when you talk to a nurse about your loved one? We aim to provide that same level of understanding here. People come to us for lots of questions, like how to prevent concussions in kids? What should parents know about screen time for toddlers? What’s the best way to approach shingles prevention in the elderly? Well we can help. Stop scaring yourself by searching online for answers to your health concerns—turn to Nurse-1-1 to get your questions answered.