Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition that causes you to stop breathing while you sleep. Your breathing usually stops for more than 10 seconds and then restarts. This cycle can happen multiple times throughout the night.

An estimated 24 million people in the United States have undiagnosed sleep apnea. While there are different sleep apnea types, obstructive sleep apnea is the most common. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) causes the tissues in your mouth and throat to narrow or close your airways. As a result, your breathing momentarily stops, which can put a strain on your heart and ultimately affect your daily life.

One of the problems with sleep apnea is that you experience the symptoms while you are sleeping—meaning that symptoms might not be noticeable to others and you may also be unaware of your symptoms. If you or a loved one suspects that you might be experiencing a sleep disorder, it’s important to know the signs of sleep apnea. 

man waking up tired and with headache in bed

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Snoring

One of the most common sleep apnea symptoms is snoring. Snoring can signal that your airways are becoming narrow and are keeping air from moving throughout your body while you sleep. Having extra or bulky tissue in the back of the throat or a larger tongue can make snoring more likely to occur.  

In addition to snoring, some people may make other sounds while sleeping, such as gasping, choking, and snorting. The gasping can occur when you’re trying to breathe against a closed airway, which your brain interprets as a sign to take deeper breaths. As a result, you might also wake up multiple times a night. 

But, keep in mind: not all snoring means you have sleep apnea. People who receive a sleep apnea diagnosis generally make snoring sounds, which accompany a pause in breathing, choking, or gasping for air.

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness 

Sleep apnea can affect your ability to sleep well at night. As a result, it’s common to wake up feeling tired. In fact, 15% to 50% of people with sleep apnea experience extreme fatigue during the day. 

You can experience excessive daytime sleepiness even if you slept seven to nine hours by the clock at night. While you’re asleep, you don’t always consciously know what symptoms you’re experiencing. But, your body might still feel the effects of interrupted sleep the next day. 

Excessive daytime sleepiness can be a cause for concern because you might end up feeling sleepy while doing important tasks—such as driving, operating machinery at work, or cooking with sharp objects.  

Fatigue 

Fatigue is the feeling of having very little energy, which can also make you feel unmotivated or irritable. As a result, you may find that you need to take daytime naps to regain energy. However, if you experience severe or chronic sleep apnea, even daytime naps may not reduce fatigue.

Memory and Concentration Problems

The inability to get good quality sleep when you have sleep apnea can lead to problems with concentration and memory during the day. You might notice that you’re unable to focus on your work or easily forget tasks or deadlines. 

Memory and concentration problems can also make it difficult to carry a conversation without getting distracted or lead to issues with procrastination, due to a lack of energy and restful sleep.

Morning Headaches 

Experiencing headaches first thing in the morning after waking up can also be a sleep apnea symptom. While healthcare providers aren’t sure exactly why those with sleep apnea have headaches, one theory is that a drop in your oxygen levels throughout the night can trigger pain sensations in your head and other parts of the body.

Currently, there is no criteria for sleep apnea-related headaches that researchers have developed that compare to other types of headaches (e.g., migraine, tension, or cluster headaches). 

Nocturia  

Nocturia is a symptom that causes you to wake up at least two times or more every night to go to the bathroom. Research suggests that nearly 50% of all people with sleep apnea experience nocturia.  

Healthcare providers do not know exactly why those with sleep apnea commonly experience nocturia. One theory is that hypoxemia (or, low levels of oxygen) can put stress on your bladder, causing it to become overactive. 

Some research also theorizes that snoring and low blood oxygen levels that occur due to sleep apnea creates changes in around the heart. This may cause the body to release a hormone called atrial natriuretic peptide—a hormone that stimulates urine production or gives you the urge to pee.

Symptoms in Children 

Research suggests that 2% to 4% of children also experience sleep apnea—and their symptoms aren’t always similar to adults. Some of the most common sleep apnea symptoms in children include:

  • Gasping while sleeping 
  • Hyperactivity during the daytime
  • Restless sleep
  • Snoring
  • Waking up at night frequently

Children with certain medical conditions may be at greater risk for sleep apnea. Children with craniofacial abnormalities (or, deformities that affect a child’s head or facial structure), genetic disorders, or neurological conditions may have a higher risk of developing sleep apnea. 

If your child has one or more of these conditions, you may want to talk to their healthcare provider to learn about their risk of sleep apnea. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider 

You should see your healthcare provider anytime you experience daytime sleepiness or have been told that you snore or gasp during rest—especially if you seem to be getting enough hours of sleep each night. 

However, there are plenty of people with sleep apnea that don’t snore or report sleepiness as a symptom. If you have any of the following symptoms, you should still talk to your provider about a potential case of sleep apnea:

  • Dry mouth when you wake up 
  • Having headaches in the morning
  • Choking or gasping when you sleep
  • Waking up frequently at night to urinate

Your healthcare provider can get you started on testing measures that help determine if you have sleep apnea and explain treatment options, if necessary. In about 80% of people with sleep apnea, a healthcare provider can diagnose sleep apnea using at-home sleep apnea testing by testing your breathing and quality of sleep at night.

A Quick Review 

Sleep apnea can be a serious condition that affects your quality of life and health. A condition that often goes undiagnosed, sleep apnea occurs when your breathing stops and restarts several times at night. 

The classic symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring, daytime sleepiness and fatigue, problems with your memory and concentration, headaches, and waking up at night to urinate. If you wake up from your sleep feeling fatigued and unrefreshed, talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms. They can help get you tested for the condition and start treatment, if necessary.  

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