Do you ever wake up feeling like you didn’t even go to sleep at all? Are your nights plagued with shallow sleep, and you can’t figure out why? Maybe you’ve been a loud snorer your whole life and thought you’re just cursed with it.
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might have sleep apnea. It’s not all that uncommon — the National Sleep Foundation states that over 18 million Americans suffer from it. Before getting into the main symptoms of sleep apnea, it’s important to understand how it’s different from regular snoring.
Are Sleep Apnea and Snoring the Same Thing?
Short answer: No. While they might sound similar, sleep apnea and snoring aren’t actually the same thing. To fully understand why, we’re going to delve into the anatomy of your airways for a second. The airway that runs from your larynx to your mouth is a muscular tube, with tissues that can relax and cause vibrations, or even completely obstruct your breathing.
Snoring is the sound that happens when your airway tissues flop around while you breathe, causing a vibration or sound we hear as a snore. Apnea is when this tissue becomes so floppy that it collapses and completely obstructs the airway, causing your breathing to decrease, or stop completely, and blood oxygen levels drop. Your brain wants to make sure you’re OK, so it wakes you up, allowing the airway muscles to become rigid again so it’s easy to breathe.
Snoring isn’t hazardous to your health, although it might be slightly annoying to your partner or spouse. While snoring isn’t too dangerous, sleep apnea could pose serious health hazards, so it’s important to determine whether you’re just snoring or there’s a more serious issue going on.
5 Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
Now that you know the difference between snoring and sleep apnea, here are five ways to figure out if your snoring is a sign of sleep apnea.
1. Loud Snoring
People with sleep apnea are almost always loud and frequent snorers, but snoring doesn’t always mean you have sleep apnea. If you only snore under certain circumstances, like after you’ve had a few drinks or when you’re sick, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. Snoring is a major sign of sleep apnea if it’s loud, persistent and wakes you up.
2. Waking Up Gasping for Air
This is easily the most alarming symptom — you might wake up suddenly, struggling to breathe. If you’ve woken up struggling to breathe, it’s important to consult a doctor about having sleep apnea. This happens when your airway collapses and completely obstructs your breathing, meaning your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen. If left untreated, this could lead to more serious issues, such as stroke, high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat.
3. Being Excessively Tired During the Day
If you suffer from sleep apnea, your sleep will be severely interrupted to the point where it’s likely you’ll feel exhausted all day. With sleep apnea, you’re jolted awake because you stop breathing for a few seconds. These “apnea episodes” could occur anywhere from 5 to 100 times a hour, according to Northshore Sleep Medicine. Clearly, if you’re waking up even five times per hour, you won’t be able to achieve the kind of deep sleep you need.
4. Waking Up With a Dry Mouth or Sore Throat
Another sign it might be sleep apnea is if you’re waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat. This happens because, since your airway is obstructed, you’ll open your mouth during sleep to make it easier to breathe.
5. Waking Up With a Headache
Sometimes, you might not actually be jolted awake when your breathing is affected, or you won’t remember all the times you were briefly woken up. If you get up with a headache, it’s likely because you didn’t get enough deep sleep even if you don’t specifically remember all the times you woke up throughout the night. This can also lead to irritability throughout the day.
Health Risks of Sleep Apnea
If you’re suffering from the symptoms mentioned above, it’s important to consult a doctor and receive a proper diagnosis. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to a few major health issues:
- Increased risk of stroke
- High blood pressure
- Heart attacks
- Heart disease
- Irregular heart beat
How does sleep apnea lead to such serious health problems? Sleep apnea causes huge disruptions of both your sleep and breathing. When you briefly stop breathing, or breathe shallowly, it lowers your blood oxygen levels. This is the reason it causes so many heart problems.
Another thing that happens when you stop breathing is your brain immediately wakes you up, waking you up with a slight panic and a release of adrenalin. This spike is what causes issues such as high blood pressure and irregular heart beats.
Sleep Apnea Treatment
When you see a doctor to get a potential sleep apnea diagnosis, you’ll probably be asked some questions about your symptoms and lifestyle. You might also need to do a sleep study, either at a facility or at home with a special kit designed to monitor your sleep. With these tests, the doctor can give a proper diagnosis and determine the severity of sleep apnea, and work on prescribing a treatment.
Your doctor might recommend a few lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, drinking less alcohol or to stop smoking cigarettes. While this doesn’t involve any actual medication or device, lifestyle changes can be difficult to make. However, getting proper sleep is always worth it.
If your sleep apnea is on the severe side, it might require a CPAP machine. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure, and consists of a small box with a fan inside and a mask you wear while sleeping. Basically, the machine uses pressurized air to keep your airways open, so you aren’t constantly woken up gasping for air.
Mandibular Advancement Device
A Mandibular Advancement Device, or MAD, is essentially a mouth splint that helps to keep your airways open. This device is custom made to fit your teeth, and pushes your lower jaw forward to open airways and stop snoring.
Untreated sleep apnea can cause you to feel exhausted all the time and lead to other health issues, so it’s important to see a doctor if you believe you might have it.