What is it?

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. The main types of sleep apnea are:
- Obstructive sleep apnea: the more common form that occurs when throat muscles relax
- Central sleep apnea: which occurs when the brain doesn't send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome: also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, which occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

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Signs & symptoms

The signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas overlap, sometimes making it difficult to determine the type of apnea. The most common signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas include:
- Loud snoring
- Episodes of stop breathing during sleep — which would be reported by another person
- Gasping for air during sleep
- Awakening with a dry mouth
- Morning headache
- Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- Difficulty paying attention while awake
- Irritability

Diagnosis

An evaluation often involves overnight monitoring at a sleep center of breathing and other body functions during sleep. Home sleep testing also might be an option. Tests to detect sleep apnea include:
- Nocturnal polysomnography: During this test, equipment that monitors the heart, lung and brain activity, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, and blood oxygen levels are connected to the body while sleeping.
- Home sleep tests: simple tests to be used at home to diagnose sleep apnea. These tests usually measure heart rate, blood oxygen level, airflow and breathing patterns.

If the results are abnormal, doctors might be able to prescribe a therapy without further testing. Portable monitoring devices don't detect all cases of sleep apnea, however, so doctors might still recommend polysomnography even if initial results are normal.

Treatment

For milder cases of sleep apnea, doctors may recommend only lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking. If there are nasal allergies, doctors will recommend treatment for the allergies.
If these measures don't improve signs and symptoms or if the apnea is moderate to severe, a number of other treatments are available.Certain devices can help open up a blocked airway. In other cases, surgery might be necessary.
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): A machine that delivers air pressure through a mask while sleeping.
- Oral appliances: Another option is wearing an oral appliance designed to keep the throat open.
- Supplemental oxygen: Using supplemental oxygen while sleeping might be helpful for central sleep apnea
- Surgery: Usually only an option after other treatments have failed. Generally, at least a three-month trial of other treatment options is suggested before considering surgery. However, for a small number of people with certain jaw structure problems, it's a good first option.

☝️ This is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult with your physician before making any medical decision.

Learn more about our editorial process for content accuracy.

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