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What Is Sleep Apnoea?


Written by Daniella

Last Updated: 27th January, 2022

Sleep apnoea is a condition in which breathing stops and starts during sleep. People with sleep apnoea have repeated pauses in breath, and each pause can last from a few seconds to minutes.

As well as being disruptive to our sleep cycle, these breathing lapses can lead to low blood oxygen and ultimately stress on the heart✓.

Types And Causes Of Sleep Apnoea

There are 3 different types of sleep apnoea:

  1. Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA): OSA is caused by the narrowing or closing of the upper airway - this leads to temporary lapses in breathing during sleep.
  2. Central sleep apnoea (CSA) is caused by the brain not sending the correct signals to the muscles that control our breathing - this leads to lapses and slower, shallower breathing during sleep.
  3. Mixed/complex sleep apnoea: This is caused by a combination of both OSA and CSA.

Did you know?
Obstructive sleep apnoea is common✓, affecting an estimated 1.5 million adults in the UK - however, up to 85% are undiagnosed, and therefore untreated. 

Symptoms Of Sleep Apnoea

The most common signs and symptoms✓ of OSA and CSA are listed below.

Symptoms Of Sleep Apnoea
  • Snoring (most common system of OSA)
  • Periods in which you stop breathing during sleep (reported by another person)
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Excessive sleepiness during the day
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Limited attention span
  • Irritability

The signs and symptoms of both OSA and CSA overlap which may make it difficult to determine which type you have.

Good to know!
Only a few people who snore have obstructive sleep apnea✓, but most people who have obstructive sleep apnea snore. 

Risk Factors For Sleep Apnoea

Although more common in adults, anyone, even children, can experience sleep apnoea. There are, however, certain factors that can increase your risk✓.

Risk Factors For Sleep Apnoea

Risk Factors: Obstructive Sleep Apnoea

The risk factors for this form of sleep apnoea include:

  • Anatomical characteristics such as a larger neck circumference, a short lower jaw, a narrow throat or enlarged tonsils can block the airway and affect airflow.
  • Excess weight. Obesity greatly increases the risk of OSA - research has shown✓ that a 10% increase in weight increases the chances of OSA by six times.
  • Use of sedatives, alcohol or tranquilisers. These substances can relax the muscles in the throat, making it easier for the airway to become blocked.
  • Family history. Having family members with OSA might increase your risk.
  • Smoking can increase inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway - cigarette smokers have been shown✓ to be at greater risk of developing sleep-disordered breathing than those who do not smoke.
  • Sleeping on your back. Back sleeping can cause the airways to become narrowed or blocked.
  • Nasal congestion. People who battle to breathe through their noses are more likely to experience OSA.
  • Medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, or type II diabetes may increase OSA risk. In addition, hormonal disorders such as hypothyroidism✓ (underactive thyroid) or acromegaly✓ (excess growth hormone) may also increase the risk of OSA by causing swelling of tissue around the airway and/or contributing to weight gain.

Did you know?
It has been well documented✓ that OSA affects more men than women. 

Risk Factors: Central Sleep Apnoea

The risk factors for this form of sleep apnoea include:

  • Being older and male. This group has been shown✓ to be at a higher risk of developing CSA (when compared to those with OSA and controls).
  • Medical conditions. Having had a stroke has been shown ✓ to increase the chances of CSA.
  • Pain medications. Chronic use of opioids has been shown✓ to increase the risk of CSA.

Diagnosis Of Sleep Apnoea

If you have symptoms of sleep apnoea, your doctor may refer you to a specialised sleep clinic where they will give you special devices to monitor certain physical activities such as breathing or heart rate while you sleep. This can be done at the sleep clinic or home, and the recordings will be analysed - the test is called a polysomnogram (PSG).

Treatment For Sleep Apnoea

If you suspect that you have sleep apnoea, it’s best to seek medical advice from your doctor to make a correct diagnosis and implement a suitable treatment.

Treatment For Sleep Apnoea

There are a variety of treatments available for sleep apnoea - which is best will depend on a person’s medical history and the severity of the condition.

Treatments range from lifestyle changes (losing weight and stopping smoking) to special pillows that prevent back sleeping or oral devices (such as a gum shield-like device) that keep the airway open while you sleep.

Suppose the above more conservative techniques are unsuccessful. In that case, doctors may suggest therapy treatments such as CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) - a machine that pumps air into a mask you wear, or other similar techniques.

Should all of the above fail to treat sleep apnoea, a doctor may recommend surgery - this will be entirely dependent on the individual case and specific issue.


Sleep apnoea can lead to a lack of sleep, affecting a person physically, mentally, and emotionally.

In addition, because sleep apnoea essentially deprives the body of oxygen, repeated and untreated, sleep apnoea can increase the risk✓ of cardiovascular disease.

Understanding the condition, being aware of the risk factors, and taking the necessary steps to prevent or minimise your chances of developing sleep apnoea is important.

Sleep apnoea is caused by the narrowing or closing of the upper airway due to some obstruction (obstructive sleep apnoea) or by the brain not sending the correct signals to the muscles that control our breathing (central sleep apnoea).

Frequently Asked Questions

What is sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is a condition in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep - each pause can last from a few seconds to minutes.

What is obstructive sleep apnoea?

Obstructive sleep apnoea is when breathing is temporarily cut off due to the narrowing or closing of the upper airway during sleep.

What is central sleep apnoea?

Central sleep apnoea results from the brain not sending the correct signals to the muscles that control respiration, leading to lapses and shorter, shallower breathing during sleep.

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