Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which breathing becomes shallow or pauses while the person is asleep. Chronic sleep apnea can lead to excessive snoring, waking up frequently, and feelings of fatigue during the daytime. Depending on the severity of symptoms, the effects of sleep apnea can range from mild bouts of insomnia and sore throats to chronic sleeping problems and high blood pressure. Individuals can limit the effects of sleep apnea by making healthy lifestyle choices and seeking the guidance of licensed doctors.
Most cases of sleep apnea are caused by obstructions in the throat and the narrowing of air passages. The airways become constricted when the throat muscles relax during sleep. When the muscles are relaxed, they cannot keep the soft tissue of the tongue, uvula, and tonsils out of the way of airflow. This results in momentary lapses in breathing and generally shallow breath. The immediate effects of sleep apnea are snoring, dry mouth, and irritation of throat tissue.
Snoring by itself can be loud enough to disrupt sleeping patterns in the sleep apnea sufferer or in his or her bed partner. A person may also be suddenly awakened in a fit of gasping for air. It can take several minutes to overcome shortness of breath, and the accompanying rise in heart rate makes it difficult for a person to fall back asleep easily. When a person experiences insomnia because of sleep apnea, he or she might experience morning headaches and sleepiness throughout the day.
Doctors have also identified several long-term effects of sleep apnea. People with chronic sleeping problems often experience feelings of anxiety and depression. Mood swings or personality changes have also been documented in people who suffer from severe insomnia. When the heart is regularly deprived of oxygen during sleep, it must work much harder to provide sufficient blood flow to other parts of the body. Strain on the cardiovascular system leads to high blood pressure, which significantly increases the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and eventual heart failure.
Many different remedies and medical treatments are available to reduce the effects of sleep apnea. For people with occasional or mild symptoms, simple lifestyle changes such as avoiding tobacco and alcohol, losing weight, and getting exercise are usually effective. Over-the-counter nasal sprays and strips can help keep nasal passages open at night, which can promote better airflow and reduce snoring. A person with chronic sleep apnea may need to be fitted with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, a small compressor that delivers constant airflow through a mask or nosepiece. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the tonsils and excess soft tissue that obstructs breathing.