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What is sleep apnea?

What is sleep

Do you wake up tired? Does your partner complain that you snore? If so, you may be 1 in about 5 Canadian adults suffering from sleep apnea1 – and not know you have it.

What is sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition where the muscles in the back and sides of your throat relax so much while you sleep, that this briefly blocks your breathing. When it happens your oxygen levels can drop, causing your brain to wake you up just enough to tense your throat muscles and take a breath (often unconsciously). Then you fall back into a disrupted deep sleep and the cycle continues – usually without you even noticing.

Sleep apnea can cause you to feel very tired throughout the day - sometimes falling asleep at work or while driving.

There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) – is the most common,  where the tissue of the throat blocks your airway, causing you to stop breathing
  • Central sleep apnea – is not as common as OSA,  where the brain or nerves fail to signal the muscles in your throat to tighten so you can take a breath
  • Combination or complex sleep apnea where obstructive and central sleep apnea occur together

Is it normal to stop breathing at night like this?

Yes it is normal – after you fall asleep your throat muscles relax and can cause a blockage for a few seconds. Most people might stop breathing, wake up a little, take a breath and fall into deeper sleep again, several times a night .

But when it happens more than five times per hour it is probably sleep apnea. In severe cases it can happen more than 30 times per hour.

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Who gets sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea occurs in all age groups – including newborn babies – but is most common in people who are over 50 and people who are overweight 3. It is also more common in men than women 4.

Other physical characteristics such as large tonsils, a small nose, some thyroid conditions and nasal congestion can increase your chances of sleep apnea.

Drinking alcohol or taking sedatives, narcotics, or sleeping pills before sleep can also relax your throat and worsen your sleep apnea.

Online Sleep Apnea Quiz

Online Sleep Apnea Quiz

Think you might have sleep apnea?

Take this online quiz

Signs of sleep apnea

Sleep apnea causes a range of symptoms. You may have sleep apnea if you have two or more of these:

  • Snoring – many sleep apnea patients are referred to the doctor because their snoring keeps their partner awake
  • Breathing pauses (apneas) – some sleep apnea patients are told by their partners that they stop breathing a few times at night, and then gasp for air
  • Feeling sleepy during the day – some people seek treatment after they have fallen asleep while driving or at work
  • Poor concentration
  • Feeling depressed, irritable or moody 5,6
  • Suffering from a reduced sex drive
  • Going to the toilet frequently at night
  • Nightmares

Why is sleep apnea bad for me?

People who have sleep apnea often suffer from other conditions that are associated with, or in some cases are caused by their sleep apnea. 4,5,6,7

By treating your sleep apnea, you may also be able to reduce the severity of, or the risk of suffering from:

  • Poor cardiovascular health 8,9
  • Hypertension 8,9
  • Stroke 8,9
  • Type 2 diabetes 10, 11
  • Depression  12

Am I at risk of having sleep apnea?

Take this short online quiz to assess your likelihood of having sleep apnea and whether you should talk to your doctor.


Read more about sleep apnea

  1. Young, T., Peppard, P. E., & Gottlieb, D. J. (2002). Epidemiology of Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Population Health Perspective. American Journal of Respiratory care medicine, 165(09), 1217-1239. Retrieved from
  2. Hargenset TA, Kaleth AS, Edwards ES, and Butner KL (2013). Association between sleep disorders, obesity, and exercise: a review. Nat Sci Sleep. 5: 27-35.
  3. Young, T., Palta, M., Dempsey, J., Skatrud, J., Weber, S., & Safwan, B. (1993). The occurrence of sleep-disordered breathing among middle-aged adults. The New England Journal of Medicine. 328, 1230-1235.
  4. Paul E. Peppard; Mariana Szklo-Coxe; K. Mae Hla; Terry Young (2006). Longitudinal Association of Sleep-Related Breathing Disorder and Depression. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(16):1709-1715.
  5. Anne G. Wheaton; Geraldine S. Perry; Daniel P. Chapman; Janet B. Croft. Sleep Disordered Breathing and Depression among U.S. Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005-2008
  6. Young, T., Peppard, P.E., & Gottlieb, D.J. (2002). Epidemiology of obstructive sleep apnea: a population health perspective. Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med, 165, 1217-1239
  7. Young T. et al (2008): Sleep Disordered Breathing and Mortality: Eighteen-Year Follow-up of the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort.
  8. Campos-Rodriguez, Francisco, et al. “Effect of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure on Blood Pressure and Metabolic Profile in Women with Sleep Apnoea.” European Respiratory Journal, vol. 50, no. 2, 2017, p. 1700257.,
  9. Gottlieb, Daniel J., et al. “CPAP versus Oxygen in Obstructive Sleep Apnea.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 370, no. 24, 12 May 2014, pp. 2276–2285., doi:10.1056/nejmoa1306766.
  10. Mokhlesi, Babak, et al. “Effect of One Week of 8-Hour Nightly Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea on Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes: A Proof-of-Concept Study.” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, vol. 194, no. 4, 15 Aug. 2016, pp. 516–519.,
  11. Martínez-Cerón, Elisabet, et al. “Effect of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure on Glycemic Control in Patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Type 2 Diabetes. A Randomized Clinical Trial.” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, vol. 194, no. 4, 2016, pp. 476–485.,
  12. Edwards, Cass, et al. “Depressive Symptoms before and after Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Men and Women.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 15 Sept. 2015,

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