Learn to recognize it, resolve it, and rest easy.

If you or your partner snores, you should consider getting checked for the possibility of sleep apnea. Affecting millions of people, this widespread sleep disorder can have serious ramifications—and can even be life-threatening.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. These “hiccups” can go on for at least 10 seconds, often triggering a steep drop in the blood’s oxygen levels. Some sleep apnea sufferers also experience shallow breathing along with (or instead of) the cessations in breathing. Either way, these episodes can happen 20 or more times per hour.

There are two types of sleep apnea. In the most common, obstructive sleep apnea, the throat’s channels become constricted and temporarily block airflow. With central sleep apnea, which occurs less frequently, centers in the brain fail to transmit the appropriate signals for breathing. A small number of people have complex sleep apnea, a combination of the two, but this is the rarest form of the condition.

Sleep apnea signs and symptoms

Those with sleep apnea rarely notice their own sleeping habits, but there are other recognizable symptoms. The condition typically causes daytime drowsiness, memory problems, anxiety, irritability, recurring headaches, trouble focusing, and difficulty staying asleep at night. This multitude of side effects greatly increases the risk of vehicular collisions, work-related accidents and errors, and a number of secondary medical problems. Even if you don’t notice daytime symptoms, your loved ones may notice that you snore loudly, or that your breathing is interrupted during sleep.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

Unfortunately, sleep apnea is often overlooked, and there’s no easy way for a doctor to note the symptoms. If you notice any of the above symptoms, or if you wake in the middle of the night feeling short of breath, it’s important to mention it to your doctor and to request a test for sleep apnea.

Testing is usually conducted at a sleep disorder center, where you’ll be observed overnight. You may be hooked up to a nocturnal polysomnograph that monitors heart rate, lung and brain activity, and your breathing patterns as you sleep. Another test can be done at home with a portable monitoring device, but clinic tests are generally more accurate and effective.

If you have obstructive sleep apnea, you might be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Sufferers of central sleep apnea may be directed to consult a cardiologist or neurologist to analyze their condition.

Sleep apnea treatment

Not everyone who snores or wakes during the night has sleep apnea—but if you do discover that you have it, there are numerous options. In mild cases, doctors may recommend losing weight, giving up smoking, or changing sleep positions. More severe cases generally respond well to continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP, a device that delivers air pressure to the throat’s pathways during the night to prevent obstruction. Some people opt for dental appliances or surgery to prevent further sleep problems and complications.

Whatever the severity or frequency of your symptoms, always consult with your doctor if you suspect that you or a loved one may be experiencing sleep apnea. There’s no reason to continue suffering through this inconvenient and potentially life-threatening disorder when there are a number of safe, effective treatment options.