Sleep apnea is a disorder you should lose sleep over.

About 18 million Americans have sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing pauses repeatedly during sleep. People who have the disorder can often stop breathing hundreds of times a night up to a minute at a time, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association.

In most cases, the person sleeps through the breathing stoppages because they don’t trigger a full awakening, but they are dangerous. Left untreated, this sleep- and oxygen-deprived condition can lead to high blood pressure , heart disease, moodiness, memory problems and obesity – not to mention car accidents due to drowsy driving and lack of productivity.

“The most dangerous consequence of sleep apnea relates to the heart,” said Dr. Charles Sherrill, an internist at Novant Health Sleep Center in Huntersville.  “The intermittent, repetitive drop in oxygen levels in the blood over time is not good. When patients arouse out of sleep, it creates a surge in blood pressure that is like being grabbed by the throat.”

There are three types of sleep apnea. The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea where the muscles in the back of the throat collapse, blocking the airway and affecting breathing.

“Most of the patients I see have obstructive sleep apnea,” Sherrill said. “Sometimes, patients have multiple types of sleep apnea.”

So how do you know whether you have sleep apnea? One of the major symptoms is loud snoring. Sometimes, when the snoring pauses, the sleeper will make gasping or snorting sounds. Feeling sleepy or falling asleep at work, while driving or during quiet moments of the day may also be signs of sleep apnea. But there are other indications that a person may have sleep apnea including:

  • Morning headaches
  • Memory problems and difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Depression
  • Waking up frequently to use the bathroom
  • Dry mouth or a sore throat upon awakening

Children can have sleep apnea, too. In kids, the condition can manifest itself in hyperactivity, poor school performance, and angry or hostile behavior. Children with sleep apnea may breathe through their mouths rather than their nose when awake.

Who is at increased risk for sleep apnea?

“Populations with diabetes, congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease and arterial fibrillation are more likely to have sleep apnea,” said Sherrill, who added that the incidence is as high as 80 percent in people with diabetes. 

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that people with asthma are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea than non-asthmatics, and they are three times as likely to develop sleep apnea accompanied by daytime sleepiness. 

One of the most common methods of diagnosing sleep apnea is through a sleep test, called a polysomnogram. Conducted at a sleep center, the test will measure your blood pressure, heart rate, brain activity and blood oxygen levels as you sleep.

A sleep specialist will review the information gathered during the test to determine whether you have sleep apnea. Sometimes, doctors will want to use the sleep test to determine the best setting for you on a continuous positive airway machine (CPAP).

CPAP is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. The air pressure machine and mask are used at night to keep the airway in the throat open while you sleep.     

“The most common treatment we use is CPAP, but not everyone can do this therapy,” Sherrill said. “In milder cases, we can sometimes use oral appliances to help with breathing. Really, the therapy is tailored to the individual based on the severity of the sleep apnea, the anatomy of the patient and personal preferences.”   

With mild cases of sleep apnea, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says lifestyle changes may be enough to treat the condition.

These include:

  • Losing weight. Seventy percent of people with sleep apnea are overweight.
  • Avoid alcohol and medicines that make you sleepy as they can make it harder for your throat to stay open while you sleep.
  • Try using allergy medicines or sprays to keep your nasal passages open.
  • Avoid alcohol and medicines that make you sleepy as they can make it harder for your throat to stay open while you sleep.
  • Use special pillows to help you sleep on your side rather than your back.