Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is a condition where a person’s breathing repeatedly stops during sleep. It occurs due to partial or complete blockage of their airway while sleeping.
Someone with OSA may stop breathing for anywhere between a few seconds and 90 seconds at a time. These episodes (known as apnoeas) can occur up to hundreds of times each night, depending on the severity of the problem.
While it can affect anyone, twice as many men than women have OSA and it is more common in those who are middle-aged or older. It is also more likely to occur in those who are overweight, in people who snore and in those with naturally narrow throats or nasal passages, as well as in children with enlarged tonsils or adenoids.
Symptoms of OSA include:
- Pauses in breathing while asleep – this is often noticed by others
- Waking up gasping or choking
- Morning headaches
- Waking with a dry mouth
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
OSA affects more than just sleep. If untreated, it can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. Due to daytime sleepiness, people with OSA may also have a higher risk of motor vehicle accidents and workplace accidents.
OSA is usually diagnosed by a having a sleep study. This involves an overnight stay in a hospital or a sleep clinic, where measurements are taken of your breathing and sleep patterns and your blood oxygen levels.
There are a number of treatments available for OSA, depending on the severity. However, the most common treatment is using a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, which helps to keep the airway open at night. In milder cases, special mouthguards or dental splints may help. Lifestyle changes are also an important part of managing OSA – this includes losing weight if overweight, limiting or avoiding alcohol in the evening and not smoking. Sleeping on your side rather than your back and avoiding sleeping tablets can also help.
If you think you might have sleep apnoea it is important to see your doctor, who can refer you for further investigations.
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