What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea OSA is a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder that causes people to stop breathing repeatedly while sleeping. Caused by a blockage in the airway, OSA affects millions of Americans, and only ten percent are diagnosed and treated. The disorder is twice as common in men than women.

Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea OSA

You might have sleep apnea if you suffer from one or more of the following symptoms:
• Episodes when breathing stops during sleep
• Sudden waking with choking or gasping
• Loud snoring
• Fatigue and sleepiness during the day
• Headaches in the morning
• Lack of focus
• Depression, irritability, or other mood changes
• Dry mouth or sore throat when waking
• Sweating during the night
• Hypertension
• Low libido

What causes obstructive sleep apnea?

OSA occurs when the muscles in the throat relax, making it easy for the tongue or tissues in the throat to collapse and block the flow of air. When this happens, blood cannot flow to the brain, and the brain partially wakes up to tell the body to breathe. A loud gasp or choking sound follows as the person struggles to bring air into the body. The person falls back asleep, and the cycle repeats itself. This can happen a few times during the night or hundreds of time, based on how serious the apnea is.

Causes and Risk Factors

If you suffer from any of these symptoms and you have any of these risk factors, you may be at increased risk for OSA.
• Excess weight
• Advanced age
• Smoking
• Excessive drinking of alcohol
• Enlarged adenoids or tonsils
• Genetic predisposition like a large tongue or narrow throat

Cause and Effect

Chances are that your sleep apnea complicates other situations in your life, especially the following:

• Exhaustion and sleepiness during the day
• Sleep-deprived bed partners
• Eye problems, such as glaucoma
• Complications with medications and anesthesia

Diagnosis and Treatment

The first step to figuring out if you have sleep apnea is usually answering a list of questions about symptoms and risk factors. Based on your answers, you may be asked to participate in a sleep clinic where specialists will monitor your breathing and provide medical equipment to test the results. If you are diagnosed with OSA, you will be given a mask or mouthpiece that tracks your episodes during the night and makes sure you get enough oxygen. Surgery may sometimes be necessary to remove excess tissue in the airways or correct physical defects.

Living a Healthy Lifestyle

If you have a mild case of apnea, these lifestyle changes may reduce your symptoms:
• Maintaining a healthy weight
• Getting enough exercise
• Using allergy medications or nasal decongestants
• Not sleeping on your back
• Not drinking a lot, especially at night
• Not smoking
• Avoiding medications like sleeping pills or sedatives

For more information on obstructive sleep apnea, visit The American Sleep Apnea Association.

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