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How Do You Know if You Have Sleep Apnea? What To Look For

It’s hard to tell if you have sleep apnea without a proper test. Look out for waking up during the night, snoring, morning headaches, and daytime tiredness.
Published
2022-10-31
Updated
14 MINS
Man snoring while woman is sitting up worried her partner may have sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing for short periods of time during the night. You may find yourself waking up gasping for air or you may simply wake up regularly throughout the night, to either use the bathroom or simply fall back to sleep again.

But many of the symptoms of sleep apnea — such as snoring, waking up momentarily, and paused breathing — happen without us even knowing about it. So, how do you know if you have sleep apnea? 

Below, we’ll dive into the symptoms of sleep apnea to look out for, what puts you at more risk for the sleep disorder, and how you can be tested for it. 

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing during your sleep. There are three types of sleep apnea: 

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) — when the muscles at the back of the throat relax, closing your airways while you sleep, causing you to stop breathing for short periods of time.
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA) — when your brain doesn’t send the correct signals to the muscles in your airways, meaning you temporarily stop breathing.
  • Mixed or complex sleep apnea — a combination of both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. 

Obstructive sleep apnea is more common, and this is what most research looks into. We’ll be referring to obstructive sleep apnea whenever we mention sleep apnea from here on out. 

During a sleep apnea episode, you may stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer, causing oxygen levels in your blood to drop and carbon dioxide to build up. 

When your brain detects low oxygen levels, it wakes you up — and this is where people usually gasp for air. You might wake up fully and be conscious of the sleep disruption, or you may only partially wake up and start breathing again, but not even know it’s happening. 

These episodes can happen throughout the night and up to 30 times or more an hour, causing some serious sleep disruption. 

Sleep apnea is common, too. It’s the second-most common sleep disorder behind insomnia and it could affect 2% to 4% of the population. Research shows one in four Americans could benefit from a sleep apnea evaluation. 

And it’s thought 93% of women and 82% of men with moderate-to-severe sleep apnea go undiagnosed, putting their own health at risk as well as the safety of others — by driving while sleep deprived, for example, and regularly disrupting their partner’s sleep. 

What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

The symptoms of sleep apnea include: 

Sleep apnea massively affects your sleep. It wakes you up in the night, which leads to not getting enough sleep, low energy the next day, and all the ill effects of sleep deprivation. But it even changes the sleep you do get. With sleep apnea, you get less rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and less deep sleep. It’s also not clear whether the sleep disruption caused by sleep apnea causes the same problems, or worse, that sleep disruption from other causes. 

Sleep apnea can also lead to serious health issues such as: 

Research suggests sleep apnea can also change the gut microbiome, which may promote health issues like cognitive problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

However, the symptoms of sleep apnea, and the health issues it can lead to, are very similar to those of sleep deprivation and obesity. As these two things are closely linked to the sleep disorder, it’s hard to tell the root cause of certain health issues. 

Sleep apnea causes sleep deprivation, which causes symptoms that look a lot like ADHD. 

You can learn more about the link between ADHD and sleep problems here. 

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is caused by the muscles in your throat relaxing, closing off your airways while you sleep. But what makes that happen? 

The factors that increase your risk of sleep apnea include: 

  • Obesity  
  • Having a large neck — a thicker neck usually means more fat and narrower airways)
  • Being male — although research suggests it affects 50% of women aged 20 to 70, especially women who are older, are obese, or have high blood pressure
  • Being post-menopausal or going through menopause
  • Age — sleep apnea incidence increases with age but then plateaus after 65, but experts aren’t sure why
  • Having heart disease
  • Having diabetes 
  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Having hypothyroidism 
  • Consuming alcohol 
  • Smoking 
  • Sleeping on your back
  • Having a family history of sleep apnea 

It’s not clear why all of these things increase your odds of sleep apnea. 

For obesity, it may be because fat builds up in the airways, making them narrower and more prone to collapsing. Fat can also build up in the tongue, which makes it heavier and more likely to fall back and block the airway. 

We dive deeper into the sleep apnea and weight gain connection here. 

You’re also more at risk of sleep apnea if you drink alcohol. Research suggests higher levels of alcohol consumption increase the risk of sleep apnea by 25%. This is because it relaxes the muscles in the airways, making them more likely to collapse (although drinking alcohol may not put women at as much risk for sleep apnea as it does men).  

Sleep apnea can also affect children. They may be more at risk if:

  • They have swollen tonsils
  • They have a congenital or neuromuscular disorder
  • They were born prematurely 
  • They have asthma 

Sleep apnea can also happen during pregnancy due to hormonal changes influencing your airways. And hormones may play a part in increasing the risk of the sleep disorder when women are going through menopause and post-menopausal. 

How Do You Know If You Have Sleep Apnea?

It can be hard to know if you have sleep apnea. Some of the symptoms, like waking up during the night, can easily be caused by things such as eating a large meal too late in the day. And daytime sleepiness can be caused by not getting enough sleep at night. 

Other symptoms, like snoring, happen while you’re asleep, and some snoring is harmless and not a sign of sleep apnea. Plus, not everyone with sleep apnea snores. 

Look out for these other symptoms of sleep apnea:

  • Waking up with a sore throat 
  • Waking up with a dry mouth 
  • Morning headaches 
  • Intense morning grogginess
  • Waking up regularly to go to the bathroom 
  • Brain fog or mental fatigue
  • Falling asleep during the day 
  • Erectile dysfunction 
  • Low sex drive 
  • Sleep paralysis 
  • Joint pain — a 2022 study found sleep apnea was associated with severe joint pain in postmenopausal women

If you share a bed with a partner, ask them to look out for: 

  • Loud snoring
  • Stops and starts in your breathing 
  • Gasping for breath 
  • Sleep talking 
  • Sleepwalking 
  • Acting out dreams (like punching or kicking in your sleep)

If you sleep alone, consider using an app to record your snoring and listen for signs of gasping for air. 

You can also take the Epworth Sleepiness Scale test to measure how severe your daytime sleepiness is. Better yet, you can use the RISE app to find out how sleep deprived you are (as well as make the most of the energy you do have. More on that soon.). 

Sleep apnea in children has also been linked to: 

  • Nightmares
  • Sleepwalking 
  • Bedwetting

You should also look out for difficulty with schoolwork, poor concentration, and low energy as further symptoms in children. 

Heads-up: Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that can lead to life-threatening health problems. Speak to your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist if you think you may have it. 

Check Your Sleep Need, Sleep Debt, and Sleep Hygiene

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can work out your sleep debt.

Many symptoms of sleep apnea can also be symptoms of sleep deprivation, like low energy, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and low sex drive. 

One way you can rule out sleep deprivation is by using the RISE app. The app can work out your sleep need, which is the genetically determined amount of sleep you need each night. It’s not simply eight hours for everyone

One study suggests the average sleep need is 8 hours 40 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes or so, but 13.5% of the population may need 9 hours or more sleep a night.

RISE can also work out your sleep debt, or how much sleep you owe your body. We measure this over the past 14 nights. 

If you find you haven’t been meeting your sleep need and have a lot of sleep debt, this may be the cause of low energy, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating. Although, of course, you should still consider getting tested for sleep apnea if you think you have the sleep disorder. 

If you still have these symptoms, despite having low sleep debt and meeting your sleep need most nights, sleep apnea may be to blame. 

The same goes for sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is the set of healthy sleep habits you can do each day to help you fall asleep and stay asleep each night

RISE tracks your sleep so you can see how fragmented it is and how long you’re awake during the night. If you find yourself waking up often, use RISE to work on your sleep hygiene and see if this improves. 

RISE can coach you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits and the ideal time to do them each day based on your own biology. 

If your sleep hygiene is on point, and you still wake up often, sleep apnea may be behind this. 

RISE’s Partner Connect feature also allows you to check your partner’s sleep debt, too, to see if this is the reason they’re feeling tired, or if your sleep apnea is affecting their nights.

RISE app screenshot showing sleep debt of your partner
The RISE app can tell you how much sleep debt your partner has.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep debt.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications. 

When to See a Doctor About Sleep Apnea?

You should consider speaking to a doctor if you experience any sleep apnea symptoms — the disorder is more common than most people think. Plus, it’s a serious sleep disorder and untreated sleep apnea can be life-threatening, so it’s always better to get yourself checked for it. 

You should definitely seek medical advice if: 

  • You’re snoring loudly enough to disturb your sleep or your partner’s sleep 
  • You’re waking up gasping for breath 
  • You’re falling asleep during the day, especially when driving 
  • Your partner notices your breathing stops during the night
  • You suffer from any of the factors that increase your risk of sleep apnea like high blood pressure, heart diseases, or diabetes. 

However, even if you think your sleep apnea symptoms could be caused by something else, we still argue it’s worth speaking to an expert to get to the bottom of your sleep disruption. 

That’s because anything that disrupts your sleep, will disrupt your life. Sleep is essential for energy, health, productivity, mood — the list is endless. 

Plus, sleep apnea can impact your bed partner’s sleep, too, if you snore loudly or otherwise get up often during the night. This leads to their energy, health, mood, etc. being massively impacted. (Keeping someone up at night? Share our guide How to Sleep When Someone Is Snoring with them!)

How Are You Tested for Sleep Apnea?

If you think you have sleep apnea, the first step is to speak to a healthcare professional about it. They’ll most likely ask about your symptoms, family history, and medical history. They’ll look for risk factors and then may refer you for further sleep apnea tests. 

You may be asked to do a polysomnogram (PSG), or sleep study. This may take place in a sleep center or you may be given devices you can wear while sleeping at home. 

These devices are designed to measure things such as your breathing patterns, airflow, heart rate, brain waves, and blood oxygen levels, which experts can then analyze to see if you have sleep apnea or any other sleep disorder. 

Experts will work out your apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) score, which shows how severe your sleep apnea is. It’s calculated by looking at how many times your breathing stopped (apnea) or was reduced (hypopnea) during the night and dividing this by the number of hours you slept.  

Here’s what the scores mean: 

  • Mild sleep apnea: AHI of 5 to 14 episodes a night 
  • Moderate sleep apnea: AHI of 15 to 29 episodes a night
  • Severe sleep apnea: AHI of 30+ episodes a night

As well as your AHI score, doctors may work out your oxygen desaturation index (ODI), which measures how often your blood oxygen levels fall during the night. 

You may also be referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor to look for blockages or a cardiologist or neurologist to test for central sleep apnea. 

How to Treat Sleep Apnea?

There are several sleep apnea treatment options. The right one for you will all depend on how severe your disorder is and if you’re at increased risk of other medical conditions. 

Sleep apnea treatments include: 

  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Machine or CPAP Machine, which delivers air pressure into your airways to keep them open 
  • Oral devices
  • Weight Loss 
  • Exercise 
  • Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol, and changing your sleep position to your side, rather than your back 
  • Surgery to remove your tonsils, adenoids, or soft tissue from your mouth or throat to make more space in your upper airway 

You can learn more about how to get rid of sleep apnea here.

Don’t Ignore Sleep Apnea Symptoms 

Sleep apnea can be life-threatening if untreated, so if you think you may suffer from the sleep disorder, speak to your doctor or a sleep specialist. 

At home, look out for symptoms such as waking up often during the night; waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat, or headache; and daytime sleepiness. Your bed partner may be able to spot pauses in your breathing at night or loud snoring, too. 

The RISE app can also help you check for symptoms by ruling out high sleep debt as a cause of daytime sleepiness and poor sleep hygiene as a cause of waking up during the night. It can also help you stay on top of these things to get as much sleep and energy as you can, even if you do have sleep apnea. 

Your snoring and sleep apnea questions answered:

Summary FAQs

What are the warning signs of sleep apnea?

The warning signs of sleep apnea are snoring, waking up gasping for breath, frequent nighttime awakenings, daytime sleepiness, waking up with a dry mouth, waking up with a sore throat, morning headaches, and a partner noticing your breathing pauses during the night.

Can I test myself for sleep apnea?

It’s hard to test yourself for sleep apnea. Look out for the symptoms of waking gasping for breath, daytime sleepiness, and waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat, or headache. Ask a partner or record yourself while sleeping to listen for gasping for breath.

Can sleep apnea cure itself?

Sleep apnea doesn’t tend to cure itself. Losing weight, quitting smoking, or sleeping on your side may help to reduce the symptoms. And CPAP devices, oral appliances, or surgery may be necessary in some cases.

Can sleep apnea be cured?

Some experts believe sleep apnea can’t be cured, only managed, while others say it can be treated. Depending on the cause of your sleep apnea and how severe it is, treatment options include a CPAP machine, oral appliances, losing weight, quitting smoking, or surgery.

What is the main cause of sleep apnea?

The main cause of sleep apnea is when your throat muscles relax and your airways collapse, stopping you from breathing. This can be caused by obesity, alcohol, smoking, genetics, age, or health conditions like PCOS or diabetes.

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