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What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a chronic or ongoing disorder that affects the breathing of a person while asleep. It causes interrupted and shallow breathing and results in a lack of proper airflow and disrupted sleep.

The most common kind of sleep apnea is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). This occurs when the muscles in the back of the sleeper’s throat relax too much to allow normal breathing, blocking the airway. This causes the sleeper to go without oxygen for seconds or minutes at a time and creates a buildup of carbon dioxide in the body.

People with OSA usually snore and often wake from shortness of breath, though this happens so briefly they don't remember it. They may make snorting, choking or gasping sounds when they wake, in their efforts to draw in air. This pattern of disturbed breathing and repeated waking can go on all night long, and it results in poor quality of sleep, as well as dry mouth or sore throat upon waking. People with sleep apnea often experience attention problems, irritability and sleepiness during the day. Despite these symptoms, many people with OSA are not aware that they have it. Often, a family member or bed partner is the one to first notice the signs of the disorder.

Who can have OSA?

Anyone can have OSA, but people who are overweight, smoke, or use alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers are more likely to develop it. Those who have trouble breathing through their noses, have narrowed airways, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, chronic allergies or a family history of OSA are also at a higher risk. It is a serious medical condition and may lead to headaches, depression and mood swings, as well as such serious issues as liver problems, high blood pressure, heart trouble, blood circulation problems, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and complications with surgery or medications.


To diagnose the condition, doctors evaluate patients based on signs and symptoms and often refer them to sleep centers, where sleep specialists do further evaluations and tests. This may involve overnight monitoring of patients’ breathing and other body functions as they sleep. Home sleep testing may also be an option. These sleep tests, both in laboratories and at home, measure the patient’s heart rate, blood oxygen level, airflow and breathing patterns.

See how you can do a home sleep test for Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

Treatment options

Obstructive sleep apnea may be treated through:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking
  • Medications for contributing conditions, such as allergies or asthma
  • Devices that help open blocked airways
  • As a last resort, surgery

A commonly used device for the treatment of OSA is a machine that delivers air pressure through a mask placed over the nose. Another therapy uses a single-use device that is placed over each nostril, allowing air to move freely into the nose but restricting exhaled air through small holes that increase pressure in the airway. Oral appliances are also available that help keep the throat open, such as a mouthpiece that thrusts the jaw forward during sleep.

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Health Tips

Asthma is a treatable, reversible condition that affects more than 25 million people in the United States. Appropriate medication management for patients with asthma reduces the need for rescue medication—as well as ER visits and missed days of work or school. Talk to your doctor about an asthma action plan and take all your prescribed asthma medications.

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