Sleep apnoea is a sleep disorder, which affects your breathing. Apnoea means a pause or stop-start in breathing and when this happens while you sleep it is called sleep apnoea. People with sleep apnoea have a distinctive snore and so the symptoms are often first noticed by a partner.
There are two different types of sleep apnoea.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (sometimes referred to as OSA) occurs when your throat closes momentarily while you are asleep and blocks your breathing.
- Central Sleep Apnoea (sometimes referred to as CSA) has a different cause to OSA, CSA happens when your brain doesn’t send the right signals to your muscles to keep you breathing regularly.
Although sleep apnoea is a sleep disorder, it can lead to other problems like being very tired or even falling asleep during the daytime, mood changes, high blood pressure, heart conditions, type 2 diabetes and an increased risk of stroke. Therefore, if you suspect you might have sleep apnoea, it is important to get it diagnosed by a doctor, who may refer you to a specialist sleep clinic for further tests.
Who is at risk of developing Sleep Apnoea?
Sleep apnoea can affect anyone of any age, but it is more common if you are:
- Over the age of 50
- Diagnosed with an abnormality in the nose, mouth, jaw or windpipe (also called the trachea)
- Assigned male at birth.
What are the symptoms of Sleep Apnoea?
Symptoms of sleep apnoea may be noticed first by a partner or family member, especially if they share a room with you while you are sleeping. Symptoms while sleeping include:
- Loud snoring
- Noisy or awkward breathing
- Gasping or snorting sounds
- Noticeable pauses in breathing (stops breathing for a short period, usually few seconds)
- Waking up a lot during the night
Due to poor sleep, you might also notice symptoms during the day:
- Headaches, dry mouth or sore throat on waking
- Feeling very tired or falling asleep during the day. Sleep can feel unrefreshing.
- Feeling irritable or depressed
- Trouble concentrating
If you are experiencing daytime tiredness and you drive a vehicle, you must inform the DVLA (Driving and Vehicle Standards Authority). Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to £1000 and you may risk prosecution if you are involved in a related driving incident. This is to protect yourself and others until your condition is under control.
Your partner might also experience problems because their sleep is disturbed by your snoring, and you may decide to sleep in separate rooms.
How is Sleep Apnoea treated?
Mild sleep apnoea may not need medical treatment from a doctor, instead simple lifestyle changes can help to reduce symptoms:
- Sleep on your side
- Sleep partly propped up by pillows
- Don’t drink alcohol late at night
- Lose weight if you are overweight or stay a healthy weight- there is information about health eating on our Diet and Nutrition web page.
- If you smoke, take steps to quit smoking. Find out more on our Stopping Smoking web page.
However, if snoring and tiredness are causing problems in your life, there are other treatment options available, but you will need to see your GP and possibly a sleep specialist to access these.
- CPAP or continuous positive airway pressure (a mask worn at night that is connected to a pump that gently pushes air into the nose and/or mouth to keep airways open)
- Mandibular advancement device (like a gum shield or chin strap, this is worn in the mouth to physically keep your airways open while you sleep, but is a less common treatment for sleep apnoea)
- Surgery (this is usually a last resort)
More information on treatment options for sleep apnoea can be found here.
How is Sleep Apnoea linked to other lung conditions?
Sleep apnoea does not cause, and is not caused by, other lung conditions, but can be linked to other lung conditions. For example, many people with sleep apnoea also have COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and if you have asthma, you are more likely to develop sleep apnoea.
When people have both sleep apnoea and a lung condition, one can make the other worse. It is helpful to know if someone with a lung condition also has sleep apnoea, so that the right treatment can be found.
Where can I find out more?
If what you have read here sounds like you, and you think you might have sleep apnoea, speak to your GP or practice nurse. If you do not have a GP, you can visit our service finder web page to find local services. If you already have a lung condition you can also speak to your specialist respiratory team.
There are a number or organisations who offer help and advice for people with sleep apnoea including:
If you have sleep apnoea and need to talk to the DVLA about driving, you can find ways to contact them here