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What is Apnea?

Sara Schmidt
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Most people experience brief pauses in their breathing patterns. These pauses are known as apnea. Typically considered normal, these pauses in breathing occur especially during sleep, resulting in the sleeper being awoken by the disturbance in breathing.

Apnea can be in the form of reduced breathing or breathing stopped altogether. Three main types of the condition exist. Obstructive apnea occurs when something is physically blocking the airways. Obstructions can occur due to any number of conditions, from enlarged adenoids to tonsils.

Obstructive breathing pauses are common in children. Up to three in every 100 children at the preschool age may experience this during sleep, while the soft tissue of the throat is most at ease. Symptoms may include changes in color, snoring, restlessness, and continued sleepiness or tiredness during the day. To treat this condition in children, surgery on the tonsils or adenoids may be required. Alternatively, children may be given a continuous positive airway pressure mask, or CPAP, to wear while sleeping.

Very premature infants can commonly stop breathing without notice as well. This is known as central apnea, and occurs when the brain does not start or maintain normal breathing on its own. Due to the immaturity of the respiratory center in the brain, this is usually handled with some type of oxygen treatment, such as complete intubation or a CPAP. Continual care and observation through a Nursery Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, is also typically required.

Mixed apnea, a hybrid of obstructive and central breathing pauses, occurs primarily in children and infants. The cause of this condition is usually attributed to the child's lack of control while breathing. This type of breathing pause can occur while alseep or awake.

Though brief stops of breath can be normal, in adults, the condition can also be dangerous. If breathing stops for 20 seconds or longer, it is considered a health problem. People who completely stop breathing for lengthy periods of time may require a sleep study to be conducted in order to assess their condition. Remedies for such breathing problems usually include the same methods used for children with obstructive breathing issues. Medications may also be given for breathing disorders.

The origins for the word apnea are Greek. Translated, they mean "without wind." Other causes include drug-induced states, trauma, a neurological disease, holding one's breath, or mechanical induction through choking or strangulation. People who experience noticeable airway restrictions should be taken to a doctor immediately.

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Sara Schmidt
By Sara Schmidt
With a Master's Degree in English from Southeast Missouri State University, Sara Schmidt puts her expertise to use by writing for WiseGeek, plus various magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She published her own novella and has other literary projects in the works. Sara's diverse background includes teaching children in Spain, tutoring college students, running CPR and first aid classes, and organizing student retreats, reflecting her passion for education and community engagement.
Discussion Comments
By reader888 — On Feb 05, 2011

A friend of mine is afraid he is going to have sleep apnea surgery. He's really nervous about it, because he hates hospitals and has never had any kind of surgery before.

I keep telling him it will be okay, and that he will feel so much better when he can breathe normally at night again. His sleep is so disruptive now, that he is tired all the time.

Is there anything else he can try as an alternative to surgery?

By elizabeth2 — On Feb 04, 2011

I'm paranoid that my children will develop sleep apnea, and monitor them all the time to make sure they are breathing normal while sleeping.

Ever since I heard that people can sometimes just stop breathing for no reason, it has scared me.

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt
With a Master's Degree in English from Southeast Missouri State University, Sara Schmidt puts her expertise to use by writing for WiseGeek, plus various magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She published her own novella and has other literary projects in the works. Sara's diverse background includes teaching children in Spain, tutoring college students, running CPR and first aid classes, and organizing student retreats, reflecting her passion for education and community engagement.
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