If you live with sleep apnea or sleep next to someone who does, you may wonder if there’s a pill that could make it go away. Right now, the most common way to treat this sleep disorder is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. Wearing this face mask while you sleep helps keep your airway open and prevents dangerous pauses in your breathing.
CPAP machines can be extremely helpful, but not everyone likes using them. While there’s no drug yet that can replace a CPAP -- or cure sleep apnea -- some medications help relieve symptoms of sleep apnea or other conditions that often arise alongside it.
These are some of the medications that might help:
Antidepressants. Doctors sometimes prescribe a type of antidepressant called an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) for people who have depression. If you have sleep apnea, this type of antidepressant may in theory help with that condition as well. They make it harder for you to drop into REM sleep, the deep stage during which breathing problems are most likely to happen. SSRIs may also affect the muscles around your upper airway. A few studies have shown that this can help with obstructive sleep apnea.
Weight loss drugs. People who are overweight or obese are more likely to have sleep apnea. Extra weight adds pressure to your upper airway and your chest wall. If you’ve tried a weight loss program and your BMI is 27 or higher, your doctor may prescribe an anti-obesity drug. It’s unclear how much these types of drugs help. Lifestyle changes like getting more exercise and watching what you eat are still key to weight loss.
Hormones. Aging raises your risk for sleep apnea. For women, a drop in the female hormone estrogen could play a part, too. Some studies show that hormone therapy for women going through menopause may ease their sleep apnea, but doctors need more research to confirm this.
Nasal decongestants. A nasal decongestant before bed could help keep your nasal passages open. Ask your doctor which product to use and how long it’s safe to use them. These types of drugs are often best for short-term use.
Acetazolamide (AZT). Some early studies show that this drug, which is already used for other conditions like glaucoma and epilepsy, may help sleep apnea. AZT causes you to breathe more deeply, so you take in larger amounts of oxygen. It could help your CPAP work better, too.
But, because it can cause side effects, interfere with other drugs, and make some health problems, like liver and kidney disease, worse, it won’t be right for everyone.
Medications That Don't Help
Many medications can make sleep apnea worse, including: