Obstructive sleep apnea: symptoms and causes (2023)

general description

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea: symptoms and causes (1)

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles that support the soft tissues in the throat, such as the tongue and soft palate, temporarily relax. When these muscles relax, the airways narrow or close and breathing stops momentarily.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common sleep-related breathing disorder. It causes you to stop and breathe repeatedly while you sleep.

There are different types of sleep apnea, but the most common is obstructive sleep apnea. This type of sleep apnea occurs when the throat muscles relax intermittently and block the airway during sleep. A notable sign of obstructive sleep apnea is snoring.

There are treatments for obstructive sleep apnea. One treatment involves the use of a device that uses positive pressure to keep your airway open while you sleep. Another option is a mouthpiece to protrude the lower jaw while you sleep. In some cases, surgery may also be an option.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Treatment at the Mayo Clinic


Signs and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • loud snoring
  • Observed episodes of breathing pauses during sleep
  • Abrupt awakening accompanied by gasping or gagging
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • morning headache
  • Difficulty concentrating during the day.
  • Mood changes, such as depression or irritability.
  • hypertension
  • decreased libido

When to the doctor

Consult a doctor if you have, or if your partner notices:

  • Snoring loud enough to disturb your sleep or the sleep of others.
  • Waking up gasping or gagging
  • Hold your breath while you sleep
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, which can cause you to fall asleep while working, watching TV, or even driving

Snoring doesn't necessarily indicate something potentially serious, and not everyone who snores has obstructive sleep apnea.

Be sure to talk to your doctor if you snore loudly, especially if your snoring is interrupted by periods of silence. With obstructive sleep apnea, snoring is usually louder when you sleep on your back and quiets when you turn on your side.

Ask your doctor about sleep problems that make you chronically tired, sleepy, and irritable. Excessive daytime sleepiness can be caused by other conditions, such as narcolepsy.

Request an appointment at the Mayo Clinic

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Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles at the back of the throat are too relaxed to allow normal breathing. These muscles support structures that include the back palate (soft palate), the triangular piece of tissue that attaches to the soft palate (uvula), the tonsils, and the tongue.

As muscles relax, the airway narrows or closes on one breath, making breathing difficult for 10 seconds or more. This can reduce the level of oxygen in the blood and lead to a build-up of carbon dioxide.

Your brain recognizes this shortness of breath and wakes you up briefly so that you can open your airways again. This awakening is usually so brief that you don't remember it.

You may wake up with shortness of breath, which quickly clears up with a deep breath or two. It may make a snorting, choking, or wheezing sound.

This pattern can repeat itself five to 30 or more times an hour throughout the night. These interruptions affect your ability to get deep, restful sleep stages and can make you feel sleepy during waking hours.

People with obstructive sleep apnea may not be aware of their sleep disruption. Many people with this type of sleep apnea don't realize that they haven't had a good night's sleep.

More information

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea Treatment at the Mayo Clinic
  • Obstructive sleep apnea: what happens?

risk factors

Anyone can develop obstructive sleep apnea. However, certain factors put you at greater risk, including:

  • overweight.Most, but not all, people with obstructive sleep apnea are overweight. Fat deposits around the upper airways can impede breathing. Obesity-related disorders, such as hypothyroidism and polycystic ovary syndrome, can also cause obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Older.The risk of obstructive sleep apnea increases with age but appears to stabilize after the age of 60 and 70.
  • narrowed airways.You can inherit naturally narrow airways. Or your tonsils or adenoids may enlarge and block your airway.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension).Obstructive sleep apnea is relatively common in people with high blood pressure.
  • Chronic stuffy nose.Obstructive sleep apnea is twice as likely to occur in patients who experience persistent nasal congestion throughout the night, regardless of the cause. This can be due to narrowed airways.
  • From smoking.People who smoke are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Diabetes.Obstructive sleep apnea may be more common in people with diabetes.
  • Sex.In general, men are two to three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than premenopausal women. The incidence of obstructive sleep apnea increases in postmenopausal women.
  • Family history of sleep apnea.Family members with obstructive sleep apnea may increase your risk.
  • Asma.Research has found a link between asthma and the risk of obstructive sleep apnea.


Obstructive sleep apnea is considered a serious condition. Complications can be:

  • daytime sleepiness and sleepiness.Because of the lack of restful sleep at night, people with obstructive sleep apnea often experience severe drowsiness, fatigue, and irritability during the day. You may have trouble concentrating and fall asleep at work, while watching TV, or even while driving. This can put them at a higher risk of work-related accidents.

    Children and teens with obstructive sleep apnea can do poorly in school and often have attention or behavior problems.

  • Cardiovascular problems.The sudden drop in blood oxygen levels that occurs during obstructive sleep apnea increases blood pressure and puts stress on the cardiovascular system. Many people with obstructive sleep apnea develop high blood pressure (hypertension), which can increase their risk of heart disease.

    The more severe the obstructive sleep apnea, the greater the risk of coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure and stroke.

    Obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), which can lower blood pressure. If there is underlying heart disease, these repeated episodes of arrhythmias can lead to sudden death.

  • Complications with medication and surgery.Obstructive sleep apnea is also a problem with certain medications and general anesthesia. These medications, like sedatives, narcotic pain relievers, and general anesthetics, relax the upper airways and can make obstructive sleep apnea worse.

    If you have obstructive sleep apnea, major surgery, especially after you're sedated and lying on your back, can make breathing problems worse. People with obstructive sleep apnea may be more prone to complications after surgery.

    Before having surgery, let your doctor know if you have obstructive sleep apnea or symptoms related to the condition. Your doctor may want you to be tested for obstructive sleep apnea before surgery.

  • eye problems.Some research has found a link between obstructive sleep apnea and certain eye diseases, such as glaucoma. Eye complications can usually be treated.
  • Sleep deprived couples.Loud snoring can prevent those around you from getting a good rest and ultimately disrupt your relationships. Some partners choose to sleep in a different room.

People with obstructive sleep apnea may also complain of memory problems, morning headaches, mood swings, or depression, and need to urinate frequently at night.

Obstructive sleep apnea could be a risk factor for COVID-19. It has been found that people with obstructive sleep apnea are at greater risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19 and needing hospital treatment than people without obstructive sleep apnea.

By Mayo Clinic staff

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