Suffocating During Sleep?

Does your snore keep your spouse or partner up at night? Or that you sometimes make choking or gasping noises while you are sleeping? Are you sleepy during the day? These are all possible signs that you may be one of the estimated 18 million Americans who have sleep apnea. Read on to learn more about sleep apnea and about talking with your doctor.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night's sleep, you might have sleep apnea. There are three types of sleep apnea.

  1. The most common type is called obstructive sleep apnea. It usually happens because of a build-up of fat or a loss of muscle tone in a person’s airway as he or she ages.If you have obstructive sleep apnea, breathing in air causes a suction that makes your windpipe collapse. This blocks the flow of air for 10 seconds to 1 minute. During this time, you struggle to breathe and your oxygen levels drop. Your brain reacts to this by waking you enough to tighten the muscles in your airway and open your windpipe. You may snort or gasp, then begin to snore again. This cycle can happen hundreds of times a night.

  2. The less common type of sleep apnea is called central sleep apnea. If you have this type, the part of the brain that controls breathing doesn’t send signals to the muscles that make you breathe. As a result, you stop breathing for short periods of time.

  3. Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, which occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea can affect anyone, even children. But certain factors increase your risk.


What are the risk factors for sleep apnea?

There are several known risk factors for developing sleep apnea. These include:

  • Being overweight—The extra fatty tissue can cause the windpipe to become narrow.

  • High blood pressure—As many as 40 percent of adults with high blood pressure also have sleep apnea. Your doctor can tell you if you have high blood pressure.

  • Family history—The risk of sleep apnea is higher in people who have a family history of the condition.

What kinds of problems does having sleep apnea cause?

Besides making you feel sleepy during the day, sleep apnea is linked to:

  • A higher risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and obesity.

  • A lack of oxygen, which can lead to morning headaches, less interest in sex, or slowed thinking.

  • A greater chance of having an automobile accident than people who don’t have sleep apnea.

  • Sudden death from respiratory arrest during sleep in some high-risk individuals.

  • Liver problems are likely to occur showing abnormal results on liver function tests, such as signs of scarring (nonalcoholic fatty liver disease).

What can I do if I think I have sleep apnea?

Doctors diagnose sleep apnea based on a person’s medical and family history, physical exam, and sleep study results. If you think you have sleep apnea, or any sleep problem, it is important that you talk with your doctor. It could be helpful to keep a sleep diary for 1 to 2 weeks before your appointment.


Write down when you go to sleep, wake up, and take naps. Keep track of how much you sleep each night and how you feel in the morning. Also write down how tired you feel during the day. You can also make note of anything your spouse or partner tells you he or she has noticed about your sleep, such as how often you snore or stop breathing. Show your diary to your doctor. It can help him or her make a diagnosis.


An important tool that doctors use to diagnose sleep apnea and other sleep disorders is a sleep study. If your doctor thinks you have sleep apnea, he or she may have you wear a home-based portable monitor. However, the most common sleep study is called a polysomnogram, or PSG. This painless test is done at a sleep center or sleep lab. You will go to sleep as usual but will have sensors on your scalp, face, chest, arms, legs, and a finger. These will measure:

  • Brain activity

  • Eye movements

  • Heart rate

  • Blood pressure

  • The amount of oxygen in your blood

  • Air movement through your nose as you breathe

  • Snoring

  • Chest movements


How is sleep apnea treated?

The goals of treatment are to help you breathe normally when you sleep and to relieve symptoms such as snoring and feeling sleepy during the day. Treatments include:

  • Lifestyle change. These could include avoiding alcohol, losing weight if you’re overweight, sleeping on your side instead of on your back, stopping smoking if you do smoke, keeping your nasal passages open with nasal sprays if your doctor approves

  • Mouthpieces

  • Breathing devices

  • Surgery

Your doctor can give you more information about the treatment options that may be right for you. Be sure to talk with him or her about any sleep problems you may be having.