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What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

Updated on June 6, 2021
Sam Shepards profile image

I'm Sam. I enjoy writing about sleep and mental health-related topics as well as ways to prevent stress and to relax.


Do You Have Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea can be a very intrusive and sometimes even dangerous sleep disorder. While some symptoms can be mild and easily managed, others can make it difficult to sleep properly, leaving the person extremely tired and irritable. The first step to treating or preventing sleep apnea is understanding whether or not you have it. Next up are some of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea and what you should do if you are experiencing these symptoms.

Loud Snoring

This symptom is most common in obstructive sleep apnea and it can be disturbing both for the person experiencing it and for any other people sleeping in the room or even in the house. Many people have experienced sleeping near or in the same house with someone who snores very loudly. It can be difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep when someone is snoring like a buzz saw next to you or in the next room over. While loud snoring does not always indicate sleep apnea, it is one of the most common and most noticeable symptoms.


Breathing cessation

If you have ever slept next to someone who has sleep apnea, you have probably observed this symptom. A person will simply stop breathing for a period of time, and they make wake up coughing or gasping for breath, or they may simply start breathing again, after a period. This symptom can be difficult for those who sleep alone, but if other signs and symptoms are present, it is likely that this symptom is present, too.

Waking abruptly

Another very common symptoms that accompanies sleep apnea, waking abruptly is often paired with feeling like you cannot breathe. Shortness of breath is very common for those who struggle with this disorder, and it is very easy to recognize. If this happens occasionally, it indicates a more acute type of sleep apnea, but if it happens very regularly, it can be a sign of a more serious issue. This can be especially distressing if it happens more than once during the same night.

Dry mouth

If you have sleep apnea, you probably spend most of the night breathing through your mouth. This can lead to you waking up with a very dry, gritty mouth. If you often find that you have to keep water by your bed and that you wake up very thirsty, with cotton mouth or dry mouth, this can indicate sleep apnea, as breathing through your mouth while you sleep dries out the mouth. This can lead to a number of more significant problems, like gum disease, cavities, and the like.

Sore throat

Like dry mouth, breathing through the mouth while you sleep will cause sore throat. When the mouth and throat do not have adequate saliva, you can wake up feeling like you have strep throat. You will not just be thirsty, your throat will actually feel very sore and you might think, until you have gulped down a few glasses of water, that you are getting sick.

Headaches in the morning

There is nothing worse than waking up with a headache, but those who have sleep apnea often do. Even if you do not wake up with a headache, you might start to feel one coming on soon after you get out of bed. This is caused by the distress that sleep apnea puts on your body. A headache that comes on during the morning can stay throughout the day, even if you take pain medication, and is one of the best reasons to find a treatment for sleep apnea.

Inability to stay asleep

Many of the symptoms of sleep apnea make it difficult to stay asleep. From loud snoring (you can actually snore so loudly that you wake yourself up), to breathing problems, you may find yourself being woken up several times during the night. While this is different from insomnia, which can prevent you from getting to sleep in the first place, it is still a serious issue that can leave sleep deprived.

Sleepiness during the day

Many people, especially adults, just take sleepiness in stride, believing it be a reality of adulthood. The truth is, however, that you don’t have to be sleepy during the day. In fact, the whole point of sleep is that you shouldn’t feel sleepy during the day. If you aren’t getting enough sleep and you often feel tired throughout your day, sleep apnea might be the cause.

Difficulty paying attention

Difficulty paying attention to your daily tasks is more a symptom of being sleep deprived, but that does not mean that it is not a symptom of sleep apnea, as this is one of the main causes of sleep deprivation. When you are tired, paying attention to what you need to pay attention to can be extremely difficult. This can interfere with your job, your relationships, child rearing, enjoyment of entertainment, etc.

What is happening when you have sleep apnea?

If your snoring does not bother your bed partner, you might not believe it is a serious problem. But snoring is often an indicator that the drowsiness you feel during the day, the choking or gasping for breath you often find yourself being awoken by, and more, are actually symptoms of sleep apnea.

While there are very simply treatments for this sleep disorder, so few people realize that they have this issue that only a small fraction of people who have sleep apnea actually seek a solution.

During sleep apnea, the muscles in your throat start to relax. This relaxation leaves the soft palate and tongue unsupported, narrowing and even closing up your airway. It becomes more difficult to get the deep breaths that you need to sustain sleep, lowering your blood oxygen level. Your brain signals that it is not getting enough air, so it wakes you up so that your body will start supporting those muscles again. You may not even realize this is happening, as you often fall quickly back to sleep, even though it may be happening as often as every two minutes.

Individuals who experience this will never be fully rested. Your brain is constantly waking up the body, preventing you from ever getting through a full REM cycle. Because you do not realize that you have been woken up throughout the night (or that it is actually your own body waking itself up), you might think that you have slept throughout the night and that you are actually getting a great night’s sleep. In reality, you are getting nowhere near the amount of sleep you could be getting if you were sleeping properly.

Be on the lookout for these symptoms, either in your own sleep habits or in those of your partner. Sometimes, even just sleeping on your side can prevent the airways from closing up, though some treatment methods may be more extensive.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2015 Sam Shepards


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