Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is when your breathing stops and starts while you sleep. The most common type is called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).


Symptoms of sleep apnoea mainly happen while you sleep.

They include:

  • breathing stopping and starting
  • making gasping, snorting or choking noises
  • waking up a lot
  • loud snoring

During the day, you may also:

  • feel very tired
  • find it hard to concentrate
  • have mood swings
  • have a headache when you wake up

It can be hard to tell if you have sleep apnoea. It may help to ask someone to stay with you while you sleep so they can check for the symptoms.

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See a GP if:

You have any of the main symptoms of sleep apnoea:

  • your breathing stops and starts while you sleep
  • you make gasping, snorting or choking noises while you sleep
  • you always feel very tired during the day

If someone else has seen you have the symptoms, it can help to bring them with you.

Sleep apnoea can be serious if it's not diagnosed and treated.

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If a GP thinks you might have sleep apnoea, they may refer you to a specialist sleep clinic for tests.

At the clinic, you may be given devices that check things like your breathing and heartbeat while you sleep.

You'll be asked to wear these overnight so doctors can check for signs of sleep apnoea.

You can usually do this at home, but sometimes you may need to stay in the clinic overnight.

The test can show if you have sleep apnoea and how severe it is. This is based on how often your breathing stops while you sleep (AHI score).

Understand your AHI score

Your AHI score shows how severe your sleep apnoea is:

  • AHI of 5 to 14 – mild
  • AHI of 15 to 30 – moderate
  • AHI over 30 – severe

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Sleep apnoea does not always need to be treated if it's mild.

But many people need to use a device called a CPAP machine. You'll be given this for free on the NHS if you need it.

CPAP machine

A CPAP machine gently pumps air into a mask you wear over your mouth or nose while you sleep.

It can help:

  • improve your breathing while you sleep by stopping your airways getting too narrow
  • improve the quality of your sleep and help you feel less tired
  • reduce the risk of problems linked to sleep apnoea (like high blood pressure)

Using a CPAP machine may feel strange or awkward at first, but try to keep using it. It works best if you use it every night.

Tell your doctor if you find it uncomfortable or hard to use.

Other treatments

Less common treatments for sleep apnoea include:

  • a gum shield-like device that holds your airways open while you sleep (mandibular advancement device)
  • surgery to help your breathing, such as removing large tonsils

These treatments may not work as well as a CPAP machine.

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You can find out more about CPAP machines and other sleep apnoea treatments on the British Lung Foundation website.

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If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnoea, there are some things you can do to help.

These may be all you need to do if your sleep apnoea is mild.

Do

  • try to lose weight if you're overweight
  • sleep on your side – try taping a tennis ball to the back of your sleepwear, or buy a special pillow or bed wedge to help keep you on your side

Don't

  • do not smoke
  • do not drink too much alcohol – especially shortly before going to sleep
  • do not take sleeping pills unless recommended by a doctor – they can make sleep apnoea worse

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The British Lung Foundation has local support groups and you can get travel advice from the British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association.

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Without treatment, sleep apnoea can lead to:

  • high blood pressure
  • a higher chance of having a stroke
  • depression or changes in your mood
  • a higher chance of having a serious accident caused by tiredness, such as a car accident
  • difficulty concentrating at work or school

Sleep apnoea can also be difficult for your partner and put a strain on your relationship with them.

Important

You may need to tell the DVLA about your sleep apnoea. Sometimes you may need to stop driving until your symptoms are under control.

You can check the rules for driving if you have sleep apnoea on the GOV.UK website.

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Sleep apnoea happens if your airways become too narrow while you sleep. This stops you breathing properly.

Sleep apnoea has been linked to:

  • obesity
  • having a large neck
  • getting older – although children and young adults can also get it
  • having other family members with sleep apnoea
  • smoking and drinking alcohol
  • having large tonsils or adenoids
  • sleeping on your back

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