Sleep Apnea - Topic Overview

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea means that your breathing often is blocked or partly blocked during sleep. The problem can be mild to severe, based on how often your lungs don't get enough air. This may happen from 5 to more than 50 times an hour.

This topic focuses on obstructive sleep apnea, which is the most common type.

A less common type of apnea, called central sleep apnea, can occur in people who have had a stroke, have heart failure, or have a brain tumor or infection. Even though this topic isn't about central sleep apnea, some of the treatments discussed here may also help treat it. Talk with your doctor to find out more about central sleep apnea.

What causes obstructive sleep apnea?

Blocked or narrowed airways in your nose, mouth, or throat can cause sleep apnea. Your airways can become blocked when your throat muscles and tongue relax during sleep.

Sleep apnea can also occur if you have large tonsils or adenoids . During the day, when you are awake and standing up, these may not cause problems. But when you lie down at night, they can press down on your airway, narrowing it and causing sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can also occur if you have a problem with your jawbone.

In children, the main cause of sleep apnea is large tonsils or adenoids.

Sleep apnea is more likely to occur if you are overweight, use certain medicines or alcohol before bed, or sleep on your back.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of sleep apnea that you may notice are:

  • Not feeling rested after a night's sleep.
  • Feeling sleepy during the day.
  • Waking up with a headache.

Your bed partner may notice that while you sleep:

  • You stop breathing.
  • You often snore loudly.
  • You gasp or choke.
  • You toss and turn.

Children who have sleep apnea:

  • Nearly always snore.
  • May be hyperactive or have problems paying attention during the day.
  • May be restless during sleep and wake up often. They also may have problems with bed-wetting.

But children may not seem very sleepy during the day (a key symptom in adults). The only symptom of sleep apnea in some children may be that they do not grow as quickly as most children their age.

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