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Obstructive Sleep Apnea Symptoms

By , PhD, ELS

People who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) experience a host of characteristic symptoms during both the day and night.  One of the most distinguishing symptoms of OSA is loud snoring.  This is caused by the repetitive blockage of the upper airway, resulting in the complete (apnea) or partial (hypopnea) cessation of airflow into the lungs.

The resulting low oxygen levels in the blood trigger an abrupt arousal from sleep that can be accompanied by a choking or snorting sound, sometimes leaving the sufferer to awaken throughout the night with a feeling of shortness of breath.

In some cases, the sleep arousal reflex does not bring a person to full consciousness, and they may be unaware of sleep interruptions.  In these cases, a sleep partner may be able to provide a better description of nighttime symptoms.

OSA can be difficult on sleep partners, as the loud snoring from an OSA sufferer can prevent restorative sleep in those sharing the space.

Daytime Symptoms

People with OSA also experience symptoms during the daytime.  A person with OSA may wake up in the morning with a sore throat, dry mouth, headache, or chest pain from the repeated apnea and hypopnea episodes.

The primary symptom of OSA is daytime sleepiness due to interrupted sleep patterns.  Upper airway blockage is more likely to occur as a person enters sleep because the dilator muscles responsible for keeping the airway open tend to lose muscle tone during the earliest sleep stages.  This repetitive blockage and sleep arousal prevents the person from entering the deepest and most restorative stages of sleep, resulting in chronic fatigue. This can lead to an inability to concentrate, memory loss, moodiness, irritability, and falling asleep during the day.

People with OSA may have difficulty performing normal daytime activities, doing their jobs, or safely operating motor vehicles.

A common symptom of OSA is high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Fluctuations in airflow and the subsequent drop in blood oxygen levels elevate blood pressure and put stress on the heart. People with OSA are at an increased risk for developing heart failure, coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Children

OSA can also occur in children and is commonly associated with enlarged adenoids and/or tonsils.  Disrupted sleep patterns in children can be particularly harmful because the deepest stages of sleep are when growth hormone is released and the greatest amount of tissue growth and repair occur, which are critical for proper growth and development.  For this reason, OSA in children can lead to a failure to thrive.  Children may also have poor academic performance, difficulty paying attention, attention-deficit disorder, or behavior problems at school due to insufficient sleep.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Apr 9, 2015

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