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3 of the Most Severe Sleep Apnea Symptoms

By Kyle Kirkland
Medically Reviewed by Lisa Shives, MD, PC on August 30, 2021
Identifying the symptoms of sleep apnea early may help you get the right treatment. Here are three severe sleep apnea symptoms to watch out for.

Sleep apnea is a condition that interrupts breathing during sleep and results in a lack of quality rest. Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that the condition can lead to diabetes, stroke, and even heart attack in the absence of treatment. Read on for more about severe symptoms of sleep apnea that can have a major impact on your life and well-being.

A Dangerous Number of Pauses in Breathing

“One symptom of sleep apnea is when there are pauses in breathing while sleeping—usually witnessed by another person,” Michelle Worley, R.N. and Director of Clinical Operations at Aeroflow Healthcare’s sleep division, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

A severe symptom of sleep apnea is when your breathing pauses more than 30 times per each hour of sleep, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Mild sleep apnea means you have 5 to 15 pauses in breathing per hour, while moderate cases have between 15 and 30 pausing episodes per hour. 

These pauses in breathing affect the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. 

“During an apneic episode, there is an increase in the level of carbon dioxide in the blood. This build-up triggers a defense mechanism in the brain, which jolts the body into normal breathing. Usually, the person doesn’t fully awaken but merely arouses long enough to regain control of the upper airway muscles,” George Samuel, M.D., Sleep and Internal Medicine Physician and Medical Advisor at WhatASleep, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Although you may not be aware that these rousings from sleep are happening, they can have a serious negative effect on your health—especially if you are experiencing a severe number of pauses in your breathing each night. That’s why diagnosis and treatment, most commonly with sleep testing and a continuous positive airway (CPAP) machine, respectively, are so important. 

A 2017 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that sleep apnea patients not using their CPAP machines experienced spikes in blood sugar levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones. 

Serious Fatigue With Alarming Potential Consequences

“Another common symptom of sleep apnea is daytime sleepiness,” Samuel says. These sleep disturbances prevent you from fully resting to prepare your energy for the next day. 

The amount of daily sleep someone needs depends on their age:

  • Children need anywhere from 10 to 13 hours of sleep
  • Teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep
  • Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep

Sleep apnea can affect both the quantity and quality of your sleep and often results in fatigue, which can influence many aspects of your life and even impact other people. For example, when you are tired, you are less alert. While you may not feel it initially, that fatigue could strike while you’re driving down the road, resulting in a car crash that could severely injure others or yourself. 

And this isn’t fatigue like when you’re tired after a long day at work. This fatigue causes you to feel so drained that it interrupts your daily life. This lack of energy and motivation to do anything also commonly presents alongside mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, according to Cleveland Clinic. 

Decrease in Brain Function and Harmful Personality Changes

The disruption of nightly rest that sleep apnea creates can be troublesome enough. However, the disorder can also impact your waking life severely. 

When you don’t get enough restful sleep due to sleep apnea, it can lead to:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Mood swings

According to a 2016 study conducted by the UCLA School of Nursing, a lack of quality sleep leads to a decrease in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and higher levels of glutamate. These two chemicals play an important role in the brain regions that regulate emotions and thinking. When you have too much glutamate, your brain doesn’t work as well, and extremely high levels of it can lead to brain damage.

A 2017 study published in Sleep Medicine and Disorders: International Journal found that people with obstructive sleep apnea also struggle with decreased physical and mental health, and symptoms such as poor neurocognitive performance, mood disorders, and even major depressive disorder.

Think you may have sleep apnea? You can start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.