Many people treat snoring as a joke or something to feel embarrassed about. But loud snoring—especially when accompanied by daytime fatigue—may be a sign of sleep apnea, a common disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts as you sleep. Sleep apnea can leave you feeling exhausted during the day, affect your mood and your relationship with your bed partner, and even be dangerous to your health. But there are things you can do to sleep better at night and feel sharper and more energetic during the day. The first step is to overcome any embarrassment you feel about your snoring and learn to recognize the symptoms of sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common but serious sleep disorder where your breathing is briefly interrupted when you’re asleep. If you have sleep apnea, you’re probably not aware of these short breathing pauses that occur hundreds of times a night, jolting you out of your natural sleep rhythm. All you know is that you don’t feel as energetic, mentally sharp, or productive during the day as you should do.

The most common type of sleep apnea—obstructive sleep apnea—occurs when the airway is blocked, causing pauses in breathing and loud snoring. Since sleep apnea only occurs while you’re sleeping, you may only discover you have a problem when a bed partner or roommate complains about your snoring. Though you may feel self-conscious about it or tempted to just make light of your snoring, it’s something you shouldn’t ignore. Sleep apnea can take a serious toll on your physical and emotional health.

The chronic sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea can result in daytime sleepiness, slow reflexes, poor concentration, and an increased risk of accidents. Sleep apnea can cause moodiness, irritability, and even lead to depression, as well as serious physical health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, liver problems, and weight gain. With the right treatment and self-help strategies, however, you can control your snoring and the symptoms of sleep apnea, get your sleep back on track, and feel refreshed and alert during the day.

Types of sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the soft tissue in the back of the throat relaxes during sleep and blocks the airway, often causing you to snore loudly.

Central sleep apnea is a much less common type of sleep apnea that involves the central nervous system, occurring when the brain fails to signal the muscles that control breathing. People with central sleep apnea seldom snore.

Complex sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea

It can be tough to identify sleep apnea on your own, since the most prominent symptoms only occur when you’re asleep. But you can get around this difficulty by asking a bed partner to observe your sleep habits, or by recording yourself during sleep. If pauses occur while you snore, and if choking or gasping follows the pauses, these are major warning signs that you have sleep apnea.

Major warning signs

Loud and chronic snoring almost every night
Choking, snorting, or gasping during sleep
Pauses in breathing
Waking up at night feeling short of breath
Daytime sleepiness and fatigue, no matter how much time you spend in bed

Other warning signs

  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Insomnia or night ime awakenings; restless or fitful sleep
  • Going to the bathroom frequently during the night
  • Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
  • Uncharacteristic moodiness, irritability, or depression
  • Morning headaches
  • Impotence

Is it sleep apnea or just snoring?

Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, and not everyone who has sleep apnea snores. So how do you tell the difference between normal snoring and a more serious case of sleep apnea?

The biggest telltale sign is how you feel during the day. Normal snoring doesn’t interfere with the quality of your sleep as much as sleep apnea does, so you’re less likely to suffer from extreme fatigue and sleepiness during the day.

Record yourself sleeping or ask your sleep partner to keep track of your snoring, noting how loud and frequent it is, and if you’re gasping, choking, or making other unusual sounds. Even if you don’t have sleep apnea, a snoring problem can get in the way of your bed partner’s rest and affect your own sleep quality and health. However, there are effective solutions to snoring.

See a doctor immediately if you suspect sleep apnea

Sleep apnea can be a potentially serious disorder, so contact a doctor immediately if you spot the warning signs. An official diagnosis of sleep apnea may require seeing a sleep specialist and taking a home- or clinic-based sleep test.

Sleep apnea causes

While anyone can have sleep apnea, you have a higher risk for obstructive sleep apnea if you’re:

  • Overweight, male, with a family history of sleep apnea
  • Over the age of 50, a smoker, affected by high blood pressure
  • Black, Hispanic, or a Pacific Islander
  • Someone with a neck circumference greater than 15.75 inches (40 cm)

Other physical attributes that put you at risk for obstructive sleep apnea include a deviated septum, receding chin, or enlarged tonsils or adenoids. Your airway may be blocked or narrowed during sleep simply because your throat muscles tend to relax more than normal. Allergies or other medical conditions that cause nasal congestion and blockage can also contribute to sleep apnea.

Treatment options for obstructive sleep apnea include:

CPAP

Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure (CPAP) is the most common treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. The CPAP device is a mask-like machine that covers your nose and mouth, providing a constant stream of air that keeps your breathing passages open while you sleep.

Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure (CPAP) is the most common treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. The CPAP device is a mask-like machine that covers your nose and mouth, providing a constant stream of air that keeps your breathing passages open while you sleep.

If you’ve given up on sleep apnea machines in the past because of discomfort, you owe it to yourself to give them a second look. CPAP technology is constantly being updated and improved, and the new CPAP devices are lighter, quieter, and more comfortable. In many cases, you’ll experience immediate symptom relief and a huge boost in your mental and physical energy.

Make sure your CPAP device fits correctly. A correct fit makes a huge difference. Schedule regular appointments with your doctor to check the fit and evaluate your treatment progress.

Customize the mask, tubing and straps for the right fit. Ask your doctor about soft pads to reduce skin irritation, nasal pillows for nose discomfort, and chinstraps to keep your mouth closed and reduce throat irritation.

Many CPAP devices now come with a built-in humidifier to decrease dryness and skin irritation. Try a special face moisturizer for dry skin.

Keep your mask, tubing and headgear clean. To ensure maximum comfort and benefit, replace CPAP and humidifier filters regularly and keep the unit clean.

Mask the sound of the CPAP machine. If the sound of the CPAP machine bothers you, place it beneath the bed to reduce the noise and use a sound machine to help you sleep.

Bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP or BPAP). Devices can be used for those who are unable to adapt to using CPAP, or for central sleep apnea sufferers who need assistance for a weak breathing pattern. This device automatically adjusts the pressure while you're sleeping, providing more pressure when you inhale, less when you exhale. Some BiPAP devices also automatically deliver a breath if it detects you haven't taken one for a certain number of seconds

Sleep apnea in children

While obstructive sleep apnea can be common in children, it’s not always easy to recognize. In addition to continuous loud snoring, children with sleep apnea may:

Pause breathing while sleeping, snort, or gasp
Adopt strange sleeping positions
Suffer from bedwetting, excessive perspiration at night, or night terrors
Exhibit daytime sleepiness
Develop behavioral problems or declining grades

If you suspect sleep apnea in your child, it’s important to consult a pediatrician who specializes in sleep disorders. Left untreated, sleep apnea can affect your child’s learning, mood, growth, and overall health.

Causes and treatment for sleep apnea in children

The most common causes of obstructive sleep apnea in kids are enlarged tonsils and adenoids. A simple adenotonsillectomy to remove the tonsils and adenoids usually corrects the problem. Your child’s doctor may also recommend using a CPAP or other breathing device.

If excess weight is causing your child’s obstructive sleep apnea, your support, encouragement, and positive role modeling can help your child reach and maintain a healthy weight—and get your whole family on a healthier track.

CPAP is an important treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, but it's not without its frustrations. Learn how to avoid uncomfortable masks and other common CPAP problems.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is a common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. A CPAP machine uses a hose and mask or nosepiece to deliver constant and steady air pressure.

Common problems with CPAP include a leaky mask, trouble falling asleep, stuffy nose and a dry mouth.

Here are 10 common CPAP problems and what you can do about them:

Work closely with your doctor and CPAP supplier to make sure you have a CPAP mask that fits properly. Everyone has different face shapes, so the right style and size mask for someone else may not work for you.

  • Try a different mask. A range of CPAP masks are available. For example, some feature full face masks that cover your mouth and nose, with straps that stretch across your forehead and cheeks. These may make some people feel claustrophobic, but they work well if you prefer to breathe through your mouth during sleep. They also provide a stable fit if you move around a lot in your sleep.
    Other masks feature nasal pillows that fit under your nose and straps that cover less of your face. These can feel less cumbersome.
    Nasal pillows may work well if you wear glasses or read with the mask on, because some don't block your eyes as much as full face masks do. However, this may not be an option if you move around a lot in your sleep or sleep on your side.
  • Pay attention to size. Most masks come in different sizes. Just because you're a certain size in one mask doesn't mean you'll be the same size in another. CPAP masks are usually adjustable.

Ask your doctor or CPAP supplier to show you how to adjust your mask to get the best fit. Manufacturer product instructions also can help show you how to do this. A properly fitting mask shouldn't be uncomfortable or cause pain.

Check to make sure your mask fits well. A leaky mask can dry out your nose. If you have to tighten straps often to prevent air leakage, the mask does not fit properly.

A CPAP device that features a heated humidifier, which attaches to the air pressure machine, can help. You can adjust the level of humidification. Using a nasal saline spray at bedtime also can help ease a dry, stuffy nose.

Practice using your mask while you're awake. First, just hold it up to your face without any of the other parts. Once you're comfortable with that, try wearing the mask with the straps.