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Illustration of partly blocked throat - sleep apnoea

Illustration of partly blocked throat - sleep apnoea
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Sleep apnoea

3-minute read

What is sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea, or obstructive sleep apnoea, happens when a person’s throat is partly or completely blocked while they are asleep, causing them to stop breathing.

Their breathing can stop for anywhere between a few and 90 seconds, and they wake briefly. These episodes, which can happen many times a night, are known as apnoeas. The sufferer is often unaware of it happening, but will wake feeling tired.

Sleep apnoea ranges from mild to severe. In severe cases, sleep can be interrupted hundreds of times each night.

Sleep apnoea can affect anyone, but is more common in people who are middle aged or older, who snore, who are above a healthy weight and who have sleep apnoea in the family.

People with naturally narrow throats or nasal passages, and children with enlarged tonsils or adenoids, can also have sleep apnoea.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnoea?

The symptoms of sleep apnoea include:

  • pauses in breathing while sleeping, which may be noticed by other people
  • snoring
  • tossing and turning
  • waking up gasping or choking
  • tiredness and feeling unrefreshed after sleep

How is sleep apnoea treated?

Treating sleep apnoea will help you sleep more easily, and may reduce the risks.

For people with mild sleep apnoea, sleeping on your side (devices like special pillows and rubber wedges can help), losing weight (if you are overweight) and decreasing the amount of alcohol drunk during the evening may be all that is needed.

Other options may help, including:

  • avoiding sleeping tablets, which can make sleep apnoea worse
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • using nasal decongestant sprays, if nasal congestion bothers you

For people with moderate to severe sleep apnoa, more active treatment may be required, including:

  • an oral appliance fitted by your dentist, such as special mouthguards or splints to wear while you are sleeping — this usually works well for mild sleep apnoea
  • a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) pump, which feeds pressurised air into a face mask to hold your throat open while you sleep — this is often used for moderate to severe sleep apnoea
  • surgery, if you have severe sleep apnoea

If you think you may have sleep apnoea, see your doctor. You may be referred to a sleep disorders specialist and asked to participate in an overnight sleep study. This may be done at home or under supervision in a sleep laboratory. Please consult your doctor or a sleep clinic for further information.

What are the complications of sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is bad for your health. Apart from making you tired, there is good evidence that people with untreated moderate to severe sleep apnoea have other health problems. They are more likely to have high blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease than someone without it.

They also have a higher risk of:

It may also lead to motor vehicle and workplace accidents.

Children with sleep apnoea are not getting enough good-quality sleep so they often feel tired during the day and this can cause behaviour and development problems, as well as problems at school.

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Last reviewed: January 2020

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