Sleep apnoea is when your breathing stops and starts during sleep. Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnoea, which affects an estimated 1.5 million adults in the UK.

Sleep apnoea must be treated as soon as possible as it can lead to other problems.

These are:

  • High blood pressure
  • A higher chance of having a stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

Having sleep apnoea can also lead to excessive tiredness, increasing the risk of car accidents and
making it difficult to concentrate. It can also place strain on relationships, as sharing a bed with someone who has sleep apnoea can disturb their sleep.

What are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnoea?

Sleep apnoea symptoms mainly take place during sleep and consist of the following:

  • Pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Loud snoring
  • Gasping or choking episodes
  • Frequently waking up during the night

As a result, there are also daytime symptoms which include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat

These symptoms can significantly impact an individual's quality of life and those around them. The loud snoring and pauses in breathing can disturb other people’s sleep, leading to fatigue and potential strain on the relationship. Therefore, seeking diagnosis and treatment for sleep apnoea in the early stages is crucial.

Causes of Sleep Apnoea

Sleep apnoea occurs when the airways become too narrow during sleep, leading to improper breathing. People who are overweight, older, and those with a family history of sleep apnoea are most at risk of developing the condition.

There are also several factors which can be linked to having sleep apnoea, these include:

Progression of Sleep Apnoea

For someone with sleep apnoea, it can either be mild, moderate or severe, depending on two factors:

  1. The number of times an hour that they stop breathing (apnoea)
  2. The number of times airflow to their lungs is reduced (hypopnea)

This is called the apnoea-hypopnea index (AHI)

Mild Sleep Apnoea

Mild sleep apnoea is when a person experiences 5 to 14 episodes of apnoea or reduced airflow to the lungs every hour. This may result in symptoms such as drowsiness or falling asleep during activities that do not require much attention, like watching television or reading. These symptoms may cause minor problems at work or while spending time with friends or family.

Moderate Sleep Apnoea

Moderate sleep apnoea is when a person experiences 15 to 30 episodes of apnoea or reduced airflow to the lungs every hour. This level of sleep apnoea may lead to more noticeable symptoms such as excessive daytime sleepiness, frequent awakening during the night, and loud snoring. It can significantly impact daily activities and may cause problems at work or in social situations.

Severe Sleep Apnoea

Severe sleep apnoea is diagnosed when an individual experiences 30 or more episodes of apnoea or
reduced airflow to the lungs every hour. This level of sleep apnoea can result in symptoms such as drowsiness or falling asleep during activities that require active attention, such as eating, talking, driving, or walking. These symptoms can significantly impact a person's ability to function at work or in social settings.

It can be difficult to determine if you have sleep apnoea, therefore you may wish to ask someone to stay with you when you sleep to check for symptoms. If you think you have sleep apnoea, it may be worth bringing the person to the GP with you.

Diagnosing Sleep Apnoea

If a person suspects they may have sleep apnoea, they should consult a general practitioner. Upon
consultation, the GP may refer the individual to a specialist sleep clinic for further evaluation. At the clinic, the person may undergo tests using devices that monitor their breathing and heartbeat while they sleep.

These tests are typically conducted overnight, either at home or in the clinic. The results of these tests can help doctors determine if the individual has sleep apnoea and assess its severity based on factors such as the frequency of breathing interruptions during sleep (AHI score).

Treatments for Sleep Apnoea

There are a few ways to help treat sleep apnoea, depending on the severity of it. Lifestyle changes such as losing weight, stopping smoking and reducing your alcohol intake are all ways to help with sleep apnoea.

CPAP Machine

Many people with sleep apnoea need a device called a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine. This is where air is gently pumped into a mask that is worn over the mouth or nose when you sleep.

How a CPAP Machine can Help Sleep Apnoea

A CPAP machine helps someone with sleep apnoea by gently blowing pressurised air through the airway at a constant pressure. This airflow prevents the airway from collapsing or becoming blocked, which is a common issue for individuals with sleep apnoea.

By keeping the airway open, the CPAP machine ensures that the person can breathe regularly and without interruptions during sleep. This helps to alleviate the symptoms of sleep apnoea, such as pauses in breathing, loud snoring, and daytime drowsiness, ultimately improving the individual's quality of sleep and overall health.

Other Treatments for Sleep Apnoea

In addition to using a CPAP machine, there are alternative treatment options for sleep apnoea. Making lifestyle changes such as losing weight, engaging in regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy diet can help reduce the severity of sleep apnoea. Avoiding alcohol and sedatives, particularly before bedtime, can also be beneficial. Furthermore, sleeping on your side instead of your back and using nasal decongestants to improve nasal breathing may help alleviate symptoms.

For mild to moderate sleep apnoea, oral appliances that reposition the jaw and tongue to keep the airway open during sleep can also be considered as an alternative treatment.

In cases of severe sleep apnoea or when other treatments have not been effective, surgical options may be explored. It's crucial to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the most suitable treatment plan for your specific condition.

Further Advice and Support

You can find further advice and support for sleep apnoea from various sources. Your GP can provide you with information and guidance on managing sleep apnoea.

Additionally, there are support groups and online forums where individuals with sleep apnoea share their experiences and offer support to one another.

Sleep Apnoea Trust