Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where the body stops and starts breathing. The pauses between breaths can last for several seconds to several minutes, and often comes with intense snoring, snorting, or choking sounds.
There are treatments to help sleep apnea, but sometimes it can be a potentially dangerous disorder. Not only can irregular breathing during sleep cause complications, but people with sleep apnea will often feel tired and drowsy during the day due to a lack of sleep. This can affect the ability to work and drive safely.
So, can sleep apnea kill you? In some cases, sleep apnea can be the cause of death due to the complications it forms. Here is why sleep apnea is considered one of the most dangerous sleeping disorders.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a disorder where the throat becomes narrow or closes whilst the individual is sleeping. The irregular breathing pattern limits the oxygen levels in the blood, which is what causes the individual to wake up several times in the night. The pauses in breathing can last between several seconds to minutes at a time.
The inconsistent breathing pattern is shown by snoring, waking up during the night gasping for breath or choking, and insomnia. During the day, individuals will experience drowsiness, mood changes, poor concentration, and the inability to complete tasks such as work or driving safely.
There are three main types of sleep apnea. These include:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) - Where the airway is physically obstructed and blocked, causing several short pauses in breathing
- Central sleep apnea (CSA) - Where the brain struggles to control the muscles used during respiration
- Mixed sleep apnea - Where an individual has both OSA and CSA
Many people will experience some of these symptoms during their lifetime, but that doesn’t mean they have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea affects over 28 million Americans and can last months to years.
Can sleep apnea kill you?
It’s not easy to say how many people have died because of sleep apnea due to the complications that the disorder can create. For example, someone could have died from a heart attack that was induced by a serious case of sleep apnea.
Several health risks can be caused by sleep apnea that has been discovered by scientific research. These include:
- Heart disease
- Heart attacks
- Risk of strokes
- Gastric reflux
- High blood pressure
- Risk of cancer
The longer sleep apnea goes undiagnosed and untreated, the higher the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes. This is because the lack of oxygen levels in the blood contributes to high blood pressure.
Whilst some people may assume that sleep apnea-related complications and deaths may occur at nighttime, they often forget about the complications sleep apnea can cause in the daytime.
We all know how disruptive lack of sleep can be on day-to-day activities, whether it’s from a restless night or bouts of stress-induced insomnia. Someone with sleep apnea will experience restlessness to an entirely new level. A good night’s sleep doesn’t tend to exist for someone with sleep apnea, which only contributes to increased levels of exhaustion every day. This includes:
- Lack of concentration
- Increased risk of depression
- Lack of balance
- Painful headaches
- Sore or dry throat
- Decreased libido
- Lack of energy
It is important to remember that sleep apnea can be as dangerous during the day as it can be at nighttime. A person with bad sleep apnea may struggle with tiredness whilst driving, which can be deadly in itself. Whilst sleep apnea can’t be the sole cause of death for an individual during the day, it can be the cause of death.
People with sleep apnea will often wake up during the night, gasping or choking for air. Our breathing naturally slows down and becomes heavier when we are in the deepest cycle of sleep, but for those with sleep apnea, this is affected by the regular pauses in breathing.
Sleep apnea can, unfortunately, kill you suddenly in your sleep if the case is serious and untreated. The human body is simply not designed to survive with a lack of oxygen when we are unconscious. Whilst sleep apnea is more likely to cause long-term health complications such as heart disease, this doesn’t mean that sudden deaths don’t occur.
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
If you have more than one of these symptoms for an extended period of time, it is important to speak to a doctor. They will ask lots of questions and will measure your blood pressure to see if the symptoms are a sign of another health issue.
Then, you will be observed at a sleep center. They will run a series of tests including calculating your BMI and the circumference of your neck. This is because overweight people with thicker necks are more likely to experience sleep apnea due to the added weight on the throat. They will then observe and monitor you whilst you sleep, either at the sleep center or at home with provided equipment.
How do I cure sleep apnea?
The first step to curing sleep apnea is a change of lifestyle. This is to try and find the root of the problem. This will include quitting smoking, drinking, and losing weight. It is not recommended to take sleeping pills or to consume anything that works as a sedative, as this will further prevent the individual from breathing properly. The problem isn’t with the lack of sleep, it’s with the lack of oxygen levels due to irregular breathing.
Other lifestyle changes include sleeping on your side to prevent choking and changing your mattress.
In severe cases, individuals may use devices like MAD. MAD (Mandibular Advancement Device) is used for dental patients, which holds the jaw and tongue to provide more space in the throat. A CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) is a pump connected to a mask that fits over the nose to feed the individual oxygen.
Surgeries are used as a last resort to prevent the risk of serious health problems. This includes bariatric surgery, tracheostomies, and tonsillectomies to name a few.