Things That Can Make Sleep Apnea Worse

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on June 15, 2021
3 min read

If you have sleep apnea, you probably know all too well what it’s like to wake up from a poor night’s sleep, facing a day of feeling sluggish and irritable.

But you may not know that there are things you might be doing that can make the condition worse, even if you’re getting treatment.

With sleep apnea, your breathing repeatedly stops and starts, which keeps you from getting a good night’s sleep. Symptoms include:

About 25% of men and 10% of women have sleep apnea. The most common kind is called obstructive sleep apnea. It’s when your throat muscles relax while you’re sleeping and narrow or close your airway.

You may have sleep apnea because of the way your mouth and throat are shaped. It also tends to come on with age and menopause. Those are all things you can’t control. But there are some things you can control to help with your sleep apnea.

Things that can make sleep apnea worse include:

  • Being overweight. Extra pounds can mean more than a tight waistband. You may have extra tissue in and around your airway. That makes it harder for air to get through.
  • Drinking alcohol. It can relax your airway to the point that it gets blocked.
  • Some prescription medication. Muscle relaxants and opioid medicines can lower your breathing rate, which can harm your sleep.
  • Other health conditions. Things like diabetes and high blood pressure can also affect your sleep.
  • Your sleeping position. When you sleep on your back, your tongue can slide back into your throat and block your airway.

Many people with sleep apnea get treatment from a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machine. These devices push air through a mask, keeping your airway open while you’re asleep. But they can also cause problems of their own.

If your symptoms haven’t gotten better with a CPAP or BiPAP machine, it could be because:

  • You’re wearing the wrong size or style mask. A mask that leaks can irritate your skin and make your eyes, nose, and mouth dry out.
  • You haven’t given it enough time. It can take a while to adjust to the feeling of the mask and the air pressure that comes from the machine. If you use it only some of the time, or if you take it off partway through the night, you won’t get the benefits.
  • Your machine is too noisy to sleep through. Check that the filter isn’t clogged or dirty. You might try moving the machine farther from your bed. Or ask your doctor or supplier to check that it’s working the way it should.
  • You have complex sleep apnea syndrome. This is also called treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. When some people start using a breathing mask, their brain temporarily stops sending the right signals to the muscles that control breathing.

If you don’t treat it, sleep apnea can lead to serious health problems. It raises your risk of heart disease, uneven heart rhythms, and heart failure.

It also raises your risk of death from any cause. One reason may be that fatigue makes you more likely to have an accident at work or in the car.

Talk to your doctor if you have loud snoring or other symptoms.

And speak up if you use a CPAP or BiPAP and you aren’t feeling better, or if you’re having problems with it. Your doctor can:

  • Help you adjust your mask so it fits better, or have you try a different size or style.
  • Adjust the air flow settings.
  • Walk you through relaxation exercises to make you more comfortable in the mask.