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Brain Respiratory tract 

Sleep apnoea

Illustration of partly blocked throat – sleep apnoea

Illustration of partly blocked throat - sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea, or obstructive sleep apnoea, happens when a person’s throat is partly or completely blocked while they are asleep.

The breathing of a person with sleep apnoea can stop for anywhere between a few and 90 seconds, and they wake briefly. These episodes, which can happen many times a night, are known as apnoeas. The sufferer is often unaware of it happening, but will wake feeling tired.

Sleep apnoea ranges from mild to severe. In severe cases, sleep can be interrupted hundreds of times each night.

Sleep apnoea can affect anyone, but is more common in people who are middle-aged or over, who snore, who are above a healthy weight and who have it in the family.

People with naturally narrow throats or nasal passages, and children with enlarged tonsils or adenoids, can also have sleep apnoea.

Sleep apnoea symptoms

The symptoms of sleep apnoea include:

  • pauses in breathing while sleeping, which may be noticed by other people
  • snoring
  • tossing and turning
  • waking up gasping or choking
  • tiredness and feeling unrefreshed after sleep.

Sleep apnoea complications

Sleep apnoea is bad for your health. Apart from making you tired, it can increase your risk of:

  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • poor memory and lack of concentration
  • headaches
  • moodiness, depression and personality change
  • lack of interest in sex, and impotence in men.

It may also lead to motor vehicle and workplace accidents.

Sleep apnoea treatment

Treating sleep apnoea will help you sleep more easily, and may reduce the risks.

You can help by sleeping on your side — devices like special pillows and rubber wedges can help. Other treatments can include:

  • losing weight if you are overweight
  • minimising alcohol, and not drinking any at all for two hours before bed
  • avoiding sleeping tablets, which can make sleep apnoea worse
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • trying nasal decongestant sprays, if nasal congestion bothers you.

Other treatment options include:

  • an oral appliance fitted by your dentist, such as special mouthguards or splints to wear while you are sleeping — this usually works well for mild sleep apnoea
  • a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) pump which feeds pressurised air into a face mask to hold your throat open while you sleep — this is often used for moderate to severe sleep apnoea
  • surgery, if you have severe sleep apnoea.

If you think you may have sleep apnoea, see your doctor. You may be referred to a sleep disorders specialist and asked to participate in an overnight sleep study. This may be done at home or under supervision in a sleep laboratory. Please consult your doctor or a sleep clinic for further information.


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