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image of man with sleep apnea wearing a cpap mask in bed

A Doctor’s Advice for Dealing with Sleep Apnea

Have you been waking up exhausted? If you think you’ve been getting a full night’s sleep but you still feel terrible in the morning, you could have sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing while you’re sleeping, possibly many times a night.

Those brief periods of breathing cessation are called “apneas.” During an apnea, the muscles in your tongue and the back of your throat relax, causing your airway to narrow or become blocked when you breathe in.

Sleep apnea is more than just a nuisance. It can be life-threatening, and it’s associated with an increased risk of other serious conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. Because sleep apnea affects your ability to get adequate rest, even driving when you have this condition can be deadly. So if you suspect you may have sleep apnea, tell your doctor right away.

Here, a doctor explains the most common signs of sleep apnea to look for and what you can do to get better sleep if you’re diagnosed with this condition.

What are the most common signs of sleep apnea?

According to Kent Smith, DDS, board-certified dental sleep medicine specialist and president of the American Sleep and Breathing Academy, “the list of signs associated with sleep apnea is long and can vary widely for each person.”

However, Smith does advise patients and their loved ones to watch for these most common signs:

  • Loud or persistent snoring
  • Lack of focus/inability to concentrate due to fatigue
  • Silent pauses in breathing while asleep
  • Nighttime gasping, coughing, or choking
  • Morning headaches
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Irritability, depression, or mood swings
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Frequent need to urinate during the night
  • Dozing off while driving or doing other daily activities
  • Insomnia of unknown origin
  • Night sweats

Related: Are you a secret snorer? Here’s why that matters

Can women have sleep apnea too?

“A common misconception is that sleep apnea only inflicts overweight, mature males,” says Smith. “While it is true sleep apnea is often diagnosed in males, and that obesity and age are both risk factors, sleep apnea is becoming increasingly diagnosed in people of all ages, including children.”

Female patients may have more trouble realizing they have sleep apnea because many women snore less loudly than men do. In other words, your partner might not notice when you’re having apneas while you sleep.

Smith advises female patients to watch out for additional symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and Restless Legs Syndrome. If you experience these symptoms, in combination with daytime sleepiness or inability to stay asleep, make an appointment to see your doctor.

What’s the first step toward better sleep if you have sleep apnea?

Suffering in silence seldom gets anything done. The first step toward getting a better night’s rest is to talk to your doctor, who can refer you to a sleep specialist.

A sleep specialist will schedule a sleep study. During a sleep study, you may be asked to sleep in a clinic where technicians and nurses can monitor your breathing. Before you go to bed, they will hook you up to sensors that will show if you stop breathing during the night and for how long. Other sensors will measure sleep quality factors, including how long you maintain REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. The doctor will be able to diagnose your condition based on these readings.

What makes sleep apnea worse?

Habits like smoking and excess alcohol consumption can worsen sleep apnea. “It is important for sleep apnea sufferers to limit alcohol consumption, particularly if it is close to bedtime,” says Smith. “Alcohol is a sedative, and this means the breathing muscles are also sedated. It is more difficult to maintain a clear and compliant airway when you are sedated, as the musculature is relaxed and unresponsive.”

The condition may also worsen the longer you experience sleep deprivation. And, “although obesity is not the only risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, there is a correlation between excess weight and soft tissue of the mouth and throat,” says Smith.

Related: How sleep deprived are you (really)? Take this quiz to find out

image of cpap machine for sleep apnea

Using a CPAP machine can help alleviate sleep apnea.

What is the treatment for sleep apnea?

If your sleep doctor determines that you have sleep apnea, he or she will most likely prescribe an apparatus called a CPAP machine, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure. CPAP machines work by sending a constant flow of air into your throat, causing your airway to stay open while you sleep. (Here’s what it feels like to sleep while wearing a CPAP mask.)

Other therapies include oral appliance therapy and surgery. However, CPAPs are considered the “gold-standard treatment” by experts like Smith. Your doctor will probably ask you to try the CPAP machine before exploring other options. Your doctor will also ask you to quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight, practice good sleep hygiene, or limit alcohol consumption if any of these risk factors apply to you.

Changing your sleep position may also help. If you are a stomach or back sleeper, try sleeping on your side. Side sleeping helps stabilize the airways, making them less likely to collapse or restrict air.

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You can also do exercises to strengthen your airway. Believe it or not, singing regularly may help. So make sure you crank up the radio and bust out some tunes whenever you can.

Sleep apnea isn’t the only condition that can make it harder to get adequate rest. Next, learn about little-known sleep disorders such as exploding head syndrome.