Skip to main content

What is sleep apnea?

Do you wake up exhausted? Does your partner complain about your snoring? You may be one of up to 6% of people who suffer from sleep apnea – in obese people that number is 77% – and you may not know you have it.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea (also spelt apnoea) occurs when the pharyngeal muscles in your throat relax so much during sleep that your breathing gets blocked momentarily. When this happens, your brain notices the lack of oxygen in your blood, wakes you just enough for your conscious mind to tense the muscles and take a breath. You fall back into a deeper sleep and the cycle continues – usually without you even noticing. Sleep apnea results in feeling as though you are lacking in oxygen. You are sleepy most of the time, yet awaken with a sense of exhaustion. Some sleep apnea sufferers may fall asleep at work or while driving. Your partner may complain about your snoring. The earlier the detection of your sleep apnea, the better the treatment will work instead of damaging your health, relationship, or work performance.

Is it normal to stop breathing like this?

It is normal to stop breathing, wake a little, breathe deeper, and fall back to sleep. However if this happens more than five times an hour, you likely have sleep apnea. In severe cases sleep apnea can occur more than 30 times an hour.

Who gets sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea occurs in all age groups – including newborn babies – but is more common in men than women, in overweight 4 people, or those over 50 years of age.

Large tonsils, a small nose, some thyroid conditions and nasal congestion can also predispose some to sleep apnea. Drinking alcohol or taking sedatives before sleep can relax your throat and worsen sleep apnea.

Symptoms of sleep apnea

You may have sleep apnea if you have more than two or three of these symptoms:

  • Snoring – many sleep apnea patients are referred to the doctor because their snoring keeps their partner awake.
  • Feeling sleepy during the day – some seek treatment after falling asleep while driving or at work.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Feeling depressed, irritable and mood changes 6,7.
  • A reduced sex drive or erectile dysfunction.
  • Frequent urination at night.
  • Nightmares.
  • Waking up with a sore or dry throat.
  • Morning headaches.

Why is sleep apnea unhealthy?

People who suffer from sleep apnea often suffer from other conditions associated with and possibly caused by, sleep apnea.

By treating your sleep apnea, you may also be able to reduce the severity of, or risk of suffering from  :8,9,10,11:

  • Poor cardiovascular health.
  • Hypertension.
  • Stroke.
  • Type 2 diabetes 12, 13, 14.

The three types of sleep apnea

The three types of sleep apnea are:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) – the most common – where the throat tissue closes over the airway causing a cessation of breathing.
  • Central sleep apnea – not as common as OSA – where the brain or nerves fail to signal the muscles that control breathing that you need to breathe.
  • Combination or complex sleep apnea  – where obstructive and central sleep apnea occur together.

Am I at risk of sleep apnea?

Should you see a doctor? Try this quiz to assess your likelihood of having sleep apnea.


1. Chronic respiratory diseases, The World Health Organizaton,  viewed 21 May 2015

2. Reawakening Australia: the economic cost of sleep disorders in Australia, 2010, A report for the Sleep Health Foundation by Deloitte Access Economics© 2011 Deloitte Access Economics Pty Ltd

3. O’Keefe,, Evidence supporting routine Polysomnography before bariatric surgery, inObesity Surgery, January 2014

4. Hargenset TA, Kaleth AS, Edwards ES, and Butner KL (2013). Association between sleep disorders, obesity, and exercise: a review. Nat Sci Sleep. 5: 27-35.

5. Young, T., Palta, M., Dempsey, J., Skatrud, J., Weber, S., & Safwan, B. (1993). The occurrence of sleep-disordered breathing amount middle-aged adults. The New England Journal of Medicine. 328, 1230-1235.

6. Paul E. Peppard; Mariana Szklo-Coxe; K. Mae Hla; Terry Young (2006). Longitudinal Association of Sleep-Related Breathing Disorder and Depression. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(16):1709-1715.

7. Anne G. Wheaton; Geraldine S. Perry; Daniel P. Chapman; Janet B. Croft. Sleep Disordered Breathing and Depression among U.S. Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005-2008

8. Young, T., Peppard, P.E., & Gottlieb, D.J. (2002). Epidemiology of obstructive sleep apnea: a population health perspective. Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med, 165, 1217-1239

9. Young T. et al (2008): Sleep Disordered Breathing and Mortality: Eighteen-Year Follow-up of the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort

10. Peppard PE, Young T, Palta M, Skatrud J (2000): Prospective study of the association between sleep-disordered breathing and hypertension. NEJM 342(19): 1378-1384

11. Dincer HE, O’Neill W (2006): Deleterious effects of sleep-disordered breathing on the heart and vascular system. Respiration 73(1): 124-130

12. Meslier N, Gagnadoux F, Giraud P, Person C, Ouksel H, Urban T, Racineux JL (2003): Impaired glucose-insulin metabolism in males with obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome. Eur Respir J 22(1): 156-160

13. Bottini P, Dottorini ML, Cristina Cordoni M, Casucci G, Tantucci C (2003): Sleep-disordered breathing in nonobese diabetic subjects with autonomic neuropathy. Eur Respir J 22: 654- 660

14. Elmasry A, Lindberg E, Berne C, Janson C, Gislason T, Awad Tageldin M, Boman G (2001): Sleep-disordered breathing and glucose metabolism in hypertensive men: a population-based study. J Intern Med 249(2): 153-161

Learn more about