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June 15, 2016

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea involves involuntary pauses in breathing that disrupt sleep. It affects one in 20 adults, making it as common as diabetes and hypertension. Let’s learn more about this disorder.


Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a chronic disorder that occurs when the muscles in the tongue and throat relax, causing a partial blocking of the respiratory tract. It is the most common form of breathing-related sleep problem.

The result is restricted airflow to the lungs that leads to pauses in breathing of 10 to 30 seconds, followed by arousal from sleep. These pauses happen frequently throughout the night – anywhere from 5 to 30 times. In most cases, the person affected is not even aware of waking up and, in the morning, has no recollection of the episodes.

While it is true that people with sleep apnea snore, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.

Risk factors

Generally, men are more likely to have sleep apnea than women. Here are additional risk factors:

  • Obesity
  • A larger-than-average neck size, enlarged tonsils, a deviated septum, an underdeveloped lower jaw
  • Nasal obstruction
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Certain drugs (e.g. sleeping pills, tranquilizers)
  • Sleeping on your back
  • Drinking alcohol in the evening
  • Smoking
  • Menopause

Signs of sleep apnea

Many people with sleep apnea experience symptoms for months, even years, before being diagnosed. This is why it is important to watch out for certain signs that could indicate the presence of the disorder.

  • Do you snore loudly?
  • Do you frequently wake up during the night?
  • Do you perspire at night?
  • Are you agitated during sleep?
  • Do you often need to urinate at night?
  • Do you suffer from morning headaches?

If you note several of these signs, speak with your doctor as soon as possible. He or she will ask you questions about your symptoms and, if necessary, refer you to a sleep clinic.

Complications, diagnosis and treatment options

Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to various complications. In the short term, it obviously causes fatigue, but also headaches and irritability.

Over time, the fatigue and lack of sleep can result in more serious consequences, including traffic accidents and depression.

The risk of developing cardiovascular diseases (high blood pressure, strokes, arrhythmia, etc.) is also greater in people with sleep apnea, not to mention their higher chance of experiencing complications following general anesthesia.

If you suspect a problem, be sure to consult a doctor for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.  

Other sleep disorders

There are many other sleep disorders in addition to sleep apnea. Here are a few:

Insomnia.  Sleep disorder that can manifest itself in many ways: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep (frequent awakenings during the night) and premature waking. There are two types of insomnia: acute, which lasts from one to three weeks, and chronic, which occurs at least three nights a week for over a month.

Narcolepsy. A very rare neurological disorder in the category of hypersomnias. The main symptom of narcolepsy is the constant, uncontrollable urge to sleep during the day. Those affected are often unable to resist their need to sleep and pass directly and suddenly from a state of wakefulness to a state of REM sleep (dream phase).

Deep sleep parasomnias. Disorders occurring during deep sleep. Night terrors in children and sleepwalking are examples of this disorder.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS). Unpleasant sensation in the legs associated with an irresistible urge to move. While difficult to describe, the feeling of RLS may be similar to an uncomfortable tickling sensation. It normally occurs at night and can disrupt sleep. Other body parts, such as the arms and trunk, can also be affected.

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Sleep disorders associated with an irregular sleep-wake pattern due to jet lag or non-standard work schedules, for example.

Pharmacy services

If you think you may be suffering from sleep apnea, speak with your family pharmacist. He or she can help you identify the symptoms by means of a brief questionnaire and refer you to qualified health professionals trained to diagnose the disorder.

If need be, your family pharmacist can also recommend over-the-counter drugs or natural health products to help you sleep and review with you the basics of healthy sleep habits.

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The Website deals with health-related topics. The information presented has been validated by experts and is accurate at the time of posting. In no way does it replace the opinion of a health care professional. Uniprix Inc. and its affiliated pharmacists accept no liability whatsoever in connection with the information provided on this Website.