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Sleep Apnea

When you have sleep apnea, your breathing pauses while you sleep. This can happen many times each night. These pauses last 10-20 seconds. It is estimated that 12 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea.

There are two types of sleep apnea:sleep apnea.jpg

  • Central sleep apnea, when the brain fails to manage your breathing properly when you sleep.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type, which occurs when muscles in your throat do not keep the airway open while your body is trying to breathe.

Signs and symptoms

Chronic snoring is a common symptom of sleep apnea. If you snore often you should be evaluated by your health care provider. Sleep apnea can disturb sleep and can lead to low blood oxygen levels. Left untreated, sleep apnea may lead to:

  • Irritability and mood changes
  • Morning headaches
  • Forgetfulness and memory problems
  • Increased accidental injury
  • Disinterest in sex and sexual dysfunction
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Increased risk for obesity and diabetes

What causes sleep apnea?

There are both personal biology and personal behavior factors that can lead to sleep apnea.

Personal biology factors:

  • Small upper airway (or large tonsils, tongue and uvula)
  • Small jaw
  • Overbite
  • A large neck size (17 or greater in men and 16 or greater in women)
  • Being overweight
  • Being over age forty
  • More common in certain ethnic groups (Pacific-Islanders, Hispanics, and African-Americans)
  • Family history

Personal behavior factors:

  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use
  • Caffeine use
  • Overeating
  • Sleeping position

Self-care: What can I do?

If you think you may have sleep apnea, see a health care provider. One thing you can do to get ready for your appointment is make a sleep journal.

Keep a sleep journal, for at least a week. Each day write down:

  • When you fell asleep (how long did it take you, how long you slept)
  • How you felt when you woke
  • How you felt throughout the day
  • Caffeine consumption (when and how much)
  • Exercise during the day (when and what type)
  • Summary of daily activities (stressful day at work, or relaxing day at the beach)

This will help you health care provider decide the best care plan for you.

Some lifestyle changes may improve your sleep:


The best treatment for sleep apnea is usually determined after a thorough evaluation by a sleep specialist. Some people with sleep apnea benefit from making improvements to their overall health, like losing weight, or cutting down on alcohol use. Others will benefit from surgery to improve the airflow through the back of the throat. Some people will be advised to use simple nose masks while sleeping, as a way to improve the oxygen flow to the lungs.

When should I see a health care provider?

If you feel you may have from sleep apnea, you should see a health care provider. There is no reason to continue to feel unrested and sleepy if there is some treatment that will make you feel better.

Additional resources

Schedule an appointment at Hall Health Center

If you are a current UW-Seattle student or an established Hall Health Center patient with questions, contact our Consulting Nurse service

American Sleep Apnea Association

Central sleep apnea. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research

Obstructive sleep apnea. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research


Authored by: Hall Health Center Health Promotion staff

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Primary Care Clinic staff (KC), February 2014