Sleep apnoea

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Sleep apnoea is when you stop and start breathing while you’re asleep. Read about the symptoms and how a sleep apnoea machine can help.

Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is when you stop and start breathing again while you’re asleep. It’s called sleep apnoea if you stop breathing for 10 seconds or more.

The most common type of sleep apnoea happens when your muscles relax and your throat closes, stopping the breath moving in and out. This is called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).

What is obstructive sleep apnoea?

The muscles in your body naturally relax when you sleep. Obstructive sleep apnoea happens when your relaxed muscles restrict your airways and close your throat. This stops you breathing properly.

Your body automatically starts breathing again, often with a gasp or a noise. You might move or turn, and you might wake up for a moment.  

Sleep apnoea symptoms

Sleep apnoea symptoms mostly happen while you’re asleep, but you’ll probably notice some signs during the day too.

At night, sleep apnoea symptoms include:

  • Stopping breathing for 10 seconds or more and then starting again

  • Snoring loudly

  • Gasping, grunting or choking noises

  • Waking up a lot

  • Moving or turning around a lot

  • Needing the toilet during the night

Effects of sleep apnoea during the day include: 

  • Tiredness

  • Concentration problems

  • Feeling groggy

  • Mood swings and feeling irritable

  • Headaches

  • Memory problems

What causes sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is caused by blocked airways. You’re more likely to develop it if you: 

  • Are overweight

  • Have a large neck

  • Are middle aged or older – although some younger people and children have it

  • Smoke

  • Drink alcohol

  • Have big tonsils or adenoids 

  • Sleep on your back

Is sleep apnoea genetic?

You’re more likely to have sleep apnoea if someone in your family has it. But sleep apnoea isn’t always genetic. 

One of the biggest risk factors of sleep apnoea is obesity, which can be genetic. So this is an indirect way that sleep apnoea can have a genetic link. 

Lifestyle plays a big part, as well as other factors like the position you sleep in.

When should I seek help for sleep apnoea?

If you have symptoms of sleep apnoea, or someone else has noticed you having them, talk to a GP.

Sleep apnoea can be dangerous if it’s not treated, so it’s important to let a doctor know as soon as you can.

Testing for sleep apnoea

A GP will probably recommend tests to check for sleep apnoea. These usually involve wearing a device while you sleep to measure your breathing and heartbeat, and to check how often your breathing stops. This is sometimes done at home or might be in a sleep clinic.

Sleep apnoea treatments

If your sleep apnoea is mild, a GP might suggest lifestyle changes rather than treatment.

For more serious sleep apnoea, there are three treatment options:

  1. A sleep apnoea machine (CPAP machine) that blows air into your airways through a mask you wear while you sleep

  2. A gum shield (mandibular advancement device) you wear in your mouth to keep your airways open

  3. Surgery, including having your tonsils out 

Using a sleep apnoea machine

A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine works by pumping air into a mask you wear at night. There are different types of mask that fit over your nose, mouth or both, or your whole face.

It works best if you wear it every night, especially in the first few hours of sleep when you’re likely to sleep more deeply. 

Sleep apnoea machines need to be plugged in and make a low noise while they’re working. They can feel awkward at first, and if you’re having trouble with the fit or the seal you should talk to the doctor again.

Lifestyle tips to help with sleep apnoea

If your sleep apnoea is mild, a GP might recommend some lifestyle changes, including:

  • Losing weight

  • Sleeping on your side – use a pillow or bed wedge to stop you rolling onto your back

  • Giving up smoking

  • Avoiding drinking alcohol, especially before bedtime

  • Not taking sleeping pills

Health issues linked to sleep apnoea

If you don’t treat it, sleep apnoea can lead to other problems like: 

Telling the DVLA about sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea can make you extra tired during the day, making it dangerous to drive. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnoea, you must tell the DVLA, and you might not be able to drive until your symptoms have got better by having treatment.

You can be fined if you don’t tell the DVLA about sleep apnoea. Waiting to drive until your symptoms are better is safer for everyone, including yourself.

Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi