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What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition when a person’s airway gets blocked during sleep obstructing their breathing. It happens because the walls of the throat come together stopping the free passage of air. The episodes of non-breathing are called apnea and can last from a few seconds to a minute. At some point the person’s brain registers the lack of breathing or the drop in oxygen level and wakes them up. The person rouses just enough to open their airway and start breathing normally again, but usually doesn’t wake up completely, and doesn’t remember the apnea episodes in the morning. In the most severe cases, a person can have hundreds of apnea episodes per night.

Around 5 percent of Australians suffer from sleep apnea. It occurs in around 1 in 4 men over the age of 30, and is three times more common in men than in women.

People who suffer from sleep apnea have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and stroke. They also are prone to depression, headaches, poor memory and lower libido or impotence in men.

Types of sleep apnea

There are actually two different kinds of sleep apnea.  Obstructive sleep apnea is when non-breathing episodes happen because your airway gets blocked. It is the most common type of sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is when your airway is unobstructed but breathing doesn’t happen because your brain forgets to send signals to your muscles to breathe. It is usually associated with another illness, especially one in which the lower brainstem is affected.

Credit: Mayo Clinic

There are also several degrees of severity of sleep apnea. In a mild sleep apnea, the breathing would be interrupted less than 15 times per hour, a moderate sleep apnea would have 15 to 30 interruptions, and people whose breathing is interrupted more than 30 times per hour are considered to have severe sleep apnea.

How do you know if you have a sleep apnea?

The majority of people with sleep apnea snore. However, not everyone who snores has a sleep apnea.

The only sure way to really determine if your snoring is associated with sleep apnea is to have a sleep test at a sleep clinic.

But there are some signs you can look out for. Do you wake up unrefreshed after a full night sleep? Do you have trouble concentrating? Do you feel exhausted during the day even if you think you slept enough? Other signs include nocturia (having to go to the bathroom more than once during the night), headaches in the morning, memory loss and general irritability.

Often your bed partner would notice your apnea episodes before you do.

Other risk factors include being aged 45 or over, obesity, having a known cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes.

If you suspect that you might have sleep apnea and especially if you have one or more of the risk factors, definitely get a sleep test. The majority of sleep apnea cases are undiagnosed. Being clear on this condition and getting the appropriate treatment options will significantly improve your quality of life and health years down the road.

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