Sleep apnoea: What is it and what are the symptoms?

Sleep apnoea could put you more at risk of a car accident than drunk drivers. But what is it, could you have it and how can you treat it?

If you’re used to nodding off during the day – even during conversations and when driving – then you might have obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).

The debilitating condition, where you stop breathing temporarily at night and which leads to poor sleep and daytime drowsiness, affects one in 25 middle-aged men and one in 50 middle-aged women in the UK, according to the Sleep Apnoea Trust Association (SATA).

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At the moment only about one in four sufferers are ever diagnosed with OSA, which is especially worrying given that, in simulated driving tests, people with sleep apnoea are worse drivers than those who are over the drink drive limit.

What is sleep apnoea?

OSA is a serious condition where the muscles and soft tissues in the throat relax during sleep, causing a total blockage of the airway for 10 seconds or more, meaning the sufferer temporarily stops breathing.

According to NHS Choices, the lack of oxygen causes your brain to pull you out of deep sleep or even wake you up so that your airways open allowing you to breathe again.

In the worst cases, these events can happen every two minutes throughout the night – so imagine how little sleep you might get if you were a sufferer.

A more rare form of sleep apnoea, called central sleep apnoea, is caused by the brain not sending signals to the breathing muscles during sleep.

But there’s hope on the horizon for sufferers, due to a new study from Edinburgh University which found that mice modified to produce an enzyme called AMPK maintained a normal pattern of breathing throughout the night.

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What are the symptoms of sleep apnoea?

If you have sleep apnoea, you might be displaying some of the following symptoms, according to NHS Choices:

• Loud snoring
• Noisy and laboured breathing
• Gasping or snorting
• Night sweats
• A frequent need to urinate during the night
• No memory of your interrupted breathing
• Not feeling refreshed after waking up
• Feeling very sleepy during the day
• Poor memory and concentration
• Headaches, particularly in the morning
• Irritability and mood swings
• Depression
• Loss of libido
• Erectile dysfunction

Who’s at risk of sleep apnoea?

Drinking or smoking before you go to bed, having a large neck and taking sleeping tablets can all trigger sleep apnoea, but it’s also more likely in people who are middle-aged, menopausal or overweight.

Middle aged and menopausal

Sleep problems, including apnoea, are more common in middle age, says LloydsPharmacy pharmacist Alison Freemantle, due to a number of reasons.

“These range from lifestyle issues, such as having niggling worries on the mind, stresses of everyday life, young children waking you up, to hormone issues, such as a woman’s menstrual cycle; perimenopause, and menopause can cause disruption to sleep due to hot flashes, mood disorders, and even snoring,” she says.


“Obesity can be associated with sleep apnoea,” says Dr Sally Norton, NHS weight-loss surgeon and founder of online health hub Vavista Life, who explains how it can affect both partners in a relationship equally.

“Does your husband wake up several times at night fighting for breath? Does he drive you to distraction with his snoring? If you are as exhausted as he is the next day, it will affect your ability to make healthier choices and make your weight-loss attempts more difficult. He may then be tired during the day, falling asleep in front of the TV.

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“Recent studies have found that people with sleep apnoea are twice as likely to be in a car-crash from nodding off at the wheel – not to mention the effect it has on productivity at work and energy levels.”

How can I treat it?

The obvious answers are to lose weight, cut down on smoking and alcohol, and avoid sleeping pills. You can also try sleeping on your side, and there are a couple of devices that can help you get a better night’s sleep:

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device – this is a mask that stops your airway from closing by regulating the pressure of the air you breathe. It’s available on the NHS.

Mandibular Advancement Device (MAD) – this is like a gum shield, which holds your tongue and jaw forward to keep the space at the back of your throat open.

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