Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing is interrupted for periods of 10 seconds or more while you are asleep. These interruptions may occur hundreds of times a night, causing you to gasp for air and disrupting your sleep.

There are two main types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea — This is the most common type of sleep apnea. It is characterized by an obstruction or narrowing of the nasal passages and throat during sleep. Patients tend to wake up repeatedly to gasp for air.
  • Central Sleep Apnea — This type of sleep apnea is believed to be related to a malfunction of the brain's normal signal to breathe. The level of carbon dioxide in the blood rises, which may cause you to wake up.

Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Restless sleep
  • Loud, heavy snoring often interrupted by silence and gasps
  • Drowsiness or fatigue, caused by the lack of sleep
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Irritability, forgetfulness, mood or behavior changes
  • Anxiety or depression

If sleep apnea isn't treated, it can lead to serious health problems such as:

  • Hypertension or high blood pressure
  • Heart disease, heart attack and stroke
  • Psychiatric symptoms such as depression
  • Impotence and lack of interest in sex
  • Memory loss or other problems with mental processing, also called cognitive dysfunction

If you think you might have sleep apnea, your doctor may be able to make a diagnosis based on the description of your symptoms. In addition, an overnight evaluation with a sleep study may be performed to assess the severity and cause of your sleep problems.

During an overnight sleep study at your home or in a sleep laboratory, your breathing and other body functions are monitored while you sleep.

In a sleep laboratory such as the UCSF Sleep Testing Laboratory, tests, called polysomnograms, monitor your heart, lung, brain activity and eye movement as well as your breathing patterns, blood oxygen levels and body movements as you sleep.

At home, a portable monitor can measure the amount of oxygen in your blood, volume of air flowing through your nose when you breathe, your heart rate and chest movements that could indicate effort exerted when breathing.

Sleep apnea rarely goes away without treatment. Treatments include lifestyle changes and behavior modification, such as losing weight, sleeping on your side or stomach and not on your back, and avoiding alcohol two to three hours before going to bed.

If those efforts fail, the most effective treatment is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). A mask covers your nose and mouth and is attached to a device that pumps a continuous flow of air while you sleep. Air flowing into your nostrils helps keep airways open.

Many patients find the mask uncomfortable and give up on treatment, but with practice, you can learn how to adjust the mask and adapt to the air pressure. You may need to try more than one type of mask before you find the one that works best for you.

New devices also are being developed to improve comfort:

  • Humidifier – Air pumped by the CPAP device may cause dryness in the nasal passages and throat, sore tongue and nose bleeds. A CPAP humidifier helps alleviate the side effects.
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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Sleep Disorders Center
2330 Post St., Suite 420
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 885-7886
Fax: (415) 885-3650
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Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery
2380 Sutter St., Third Floor
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 353–2757
Fax: (415) 353–2603
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Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
707 Parnassus Ave., Suite D-1201
San Francisco, CA 94143
Phone: (415) 476-1316
Fax: (415) 712-0617
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