What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a potentially serious sleep disorder. It causes breathing to repeatedly stop and start during sleep. There are several types of sleep apnea, but the most common is OSA. This type of apnea occurs when your throat muscles intermittently relax and block your airway during sleep. A noticeable sign of obstructive sleep apnea is snoring.

Signs and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea may include:

  1. Excessive daytime sleepiness
  2. Loud snoring
  3. Observed episodes of breathing cessation during sleep
  4. Abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking
  5. Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
  6. Morning headache
  7. Difficulty concentrating during the day
  8. Experiencing mood changes, such as depression or irritability
  9. High blood pressure
  10. Nighttime sweating
  11. Decreased libido

What Happens In OSA?

OSA occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax too much to allow normal breathing. These muscles support structures including the soft palate, the uvula — a triangular piece of tissue hanging from the soft palate, the tonsils and the tongue. When the muscles relax, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in and breathing may be inadequate for 10 to 20 seconds. This may lower the level of oxygen in your blood and cause a buildup of carbon dioxide.


Your brain senses this impaired breathing and briefly rouses you from sleep so that you can reopen your airway. This awakening is usually so brief that you don’t remember it.
You can awaken with a transient shortness of breath that corrects itself quickly, within one or two deep breaths. You may make a snorting, choking or gasping sound.

This pattern can repeat itself 5 to 30 times or more each hour, all night long. These disruptions impair your ability to reach the desired deep, restful phases of sleep, and you’ll probably feel sleepy during your waking hours. People with OSA may not be aware that their sleep was interrupted. In fact, many people with this type of SA think they slept well all night.

Who is at Risk?

Anyone can develop OSA. However, certain factors put you at increased risk, including:

  1. Excess weight : Around half the people with OSA are overweight. Fat deposits around the upper airway may obstruct breathing. However, not everyone with obstructive sleep apnea is overweight and vice versa. Thin people can develop the disorder, too.
  2. Narrowed airway : You may inherit naturally narrow airways. Or, your tonsils or adenoids may become enlarged, which can block your airway.
  3. High blood pressure (hypertension) : OSA is relatively common in people with hypertension.
  4. Chronic nasal congestion : Obstructive sleep apnea occurs twice as often in those who have consistent nasal congestion at night, regardless of the cause. This may be due to narrowed airways.
  5. Smoking : People who smoke are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea.
  6. Diabetes : OSA may be more common in people with diabetes.
  7. Sex : In general, men are twice as likely as women to have obstructive sleep apnea.
  8. A family history of sleep apnea : If you have family members with obstructive sleep apnea, you may be at increased risk.
  9. Asthma : Recent research has found an association between asthma and the risk of obstructive sleep apnea.

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