Obstructive sleep apnea: causes and symptoms

September 23, 2020 6 mins read
Obstructive sleep apnea: causes and symptoms

Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep problems that you can experience. It’s usually not something you need to be alarmed about, but it is still important to address the issue if you are diagnosed with it. As with many other conditions, there are different symptoms and causes that you need to be aware of.

What is obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when your tongue and throat muscles intermittently relax, blocking your airways during sleep. Your chest muscles and diaphragm have to work harder to clear your airways and your breathing can become very shallow or, for a moment, stop entirely. Most of the time, you will not even be aware that you are experiencing these symptoms at night.

What is the difference between sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea?

There are three different types of sleep apnea, these being central sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, and a combination of the two. Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain does not send the proper signals to the muscles that are responsible for controlling sleep. On the other hand, obstructive sleep apnea, which is the more common, occurs because of an obstruction in the upper airways.

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea – what are the warning signs?

When you’re asleep, it’s hard to know if you are struggling to breathe properly. That’s why you need to look out for any of the following symptoms to see if you might be suffering from this condition.

Gasping, snorting or choking

When your breathing stops and starts abruptly in your sleep, you will likely gasp, snort or jerk your body. This not only disrupts your sleep but can also wake your bed partner.

Waking up a lot

Frequently waking up throughout the night can be one of the symptoms of sleep apnea. When you have difficulty breathing, it can spike your cortisol levels, making you wake up.

These frequent sleep disruptions can lead to many negative consequences, including daytime fatigue, hormonal imbalances, mood swings, and even weight gain.

Loud snoring

Have you been snoring in your sleep? Loud snoring is a very common symptom. Snoring occurs when air cannot move freely in and out of your lungs. It can keep your partner awake, and if it is really bad, any other people in the house too.

Not all people who snore have sleep apnea, but it is definitely one of the symptoms that you need to look out for.

Feeling sleepy and fatigued

Feeling sleepy and fatigued even though you got eight hours of sleep last night? The problem could be obstructive sleep apnea. If you stop breathing for a few seconds at a time, multiple times a night, your total sleep count might only be five or six hours.

Lack of concentration

If you struggle to stay focused during the day, the quality of your sleep could be to blame. And one of the possible reasons why your sleep quality could be compromised is obstructive sleep apnea.

Because the condition continuously disrupts sleep, it can make you sleep deprived and make it harder to focus on your studies or job.

Mood swings

If you are experiencing mood swings, it could be because of sleep apnea. That is because disrupted sleep can lower the levels of your brain’s neurotransmitters, serotonin.

Serotonin is very important for mood regulation. Cortisol levels also go up with sleep disruption. Low serotonin, paired with increased cortisol levels that make you feel more stressed or anxious, and contribute to mood swings.

Dry mouth

Waking up with a dry mouth is one of the symptoms of sleep apnea. If your nasal passages are obstructed and you struggle to breathe through your nose, you will start breathing through your mouth. When you breathe through your mouth, moisture gets lost as air moves in and out. This is why you wake up with a dry mouth.


Waking up with a headache is another possible sign of having this condition. An obstructed airway means that there will be less oxygen circulating in your bloodstream, as well as to the brain. The drop in oxygen causes carbon dioxide to go up, causing blood vessels to dilate in and around the brain. The dilated blood vessels are what cause your headaches.

What causes obstructive sleep apnea?

The condition can be caused by poor muscle tone, increased soft tissue around your airways, and structural causes like a deviated septum. While most common in men, being overweight, having a thick neck, smoking, age and nasal congestion all increase your chances of getting this type of apnea.

What is the best treatment for obstructive sleep apnea?

Going for an overnight sleep study will help doctors detect if you have sleep apnea. If you do have it, there are some treatment options you can consider to improve symptoms.

Losing weight

If you are overweight, consider going on a weight-loss journey, as the excess fat surrounding your organs, as well as pressure, can make it harder to breathe at night.

That is why losing weight by following a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep regimen could be the best thing you can do to improve sleep apnea symptoms.


You can opt for surgery to improve your symptoms, but this is usually done as a last resort. During surgery, doctors will remove extra tissue that could be obstructing your airways. Tissue can be removed at the back of your mouth and in your throat.

CPAP Machine

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) masks and machines are often given to people to improve symptoms while sleeping.

CPAP machines help to keep your airways open while you sleep. They do this by increasing the air pressure in your throat so that your airways do not get restricted or closed.

Oral devices

Oral devices can be very helpful in treating mild or moderate sleep apnea symptoms. They are used to help keep your throat open while you sleep and make it easier to breathe. Some work by bringing your lower jaw forward to keep the airways open. Others work by holding your tongue in a different position.

What to do if you suspect you have obstructive sleep apnea

Leaving sleep apnea unaddressed is risky. While you will usually only stop breathing for brief periods of time throughout the night, typically between 5 and 30 seconds long, if you stop breathing for too long, it can be dangerous.

That is why it is important to look out for different warning signs. These include waking up with a dry mouth or headache, struggling to concentrate throughout the day, snoring, and gasping or choking.

If you do suspect that you have the condition, consult your doctor for advice and further examination.

Breathing properly throughout the night is not something to take for granted. It might just take a few simple changes to help you breathe freely (and sleep peacefully) at night.