Sleep Apnea



Causes depend on the type of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive—Soft tissue in the throat relaxes and blocks the airway
  • Central—Signals from the brain slow or pause breathing
  • Mixed—Both soft tissue and brain signals cause problems
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
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Risk Factors

Sleep apnea is more common in men and adults over 40 years. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Being obese
  • Having medical conditions, such as:
    • Heart and blood vessel problems
    • Problems with the kidneys or lungs
    • Endocrine problems, such as diabetes and hypothyroidism
  • Having a large neck
  • Family history of apnea
  • Using certain medicines for pain or sleep
  • Having problems in the nose or throat such as:
    • Nasal polyps
    • Very large tonsils
    • Deviated nasal septum
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use



People with sleep apnea may snore loudly. They may wake often during sleep.

Other problems may be:

  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling tired even after sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Problems with focus or memory
  • Irritability


The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. A physical exam may be done. A sleep study may be done at home or in a clinic. This is often enough to make the diagnosis.



The goal of treatment is to improve sleep and prevent health problems. Treatment depends on the cause and type of sleep apnea. Options may be:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as keeping a healthy weight through diet and exercise, not smoking, and changing sleeping positions
  • Wearing a small device in the mouth to keep the airway open
  • Using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)—a machine that gently blows air into the airway to keep it open
  • Changing medicines or trying new ones to ease symptoms
  • Having surgery to shrink or remove extra tissue that is blocking the airway


Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise may lower the risk of this problem.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.