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What is sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea occurs when your throat relaxes and blocks your airways, which causes your body to wake itself up in order to restore your normal breathing pattern. It is sometimes referred to as obstructive sleep apnoea, or OSA.

These interruptions to your sleep can occur many times over the course of a night. Having sleep apnoea means you don’t get a proper night’s sleep, so you won’t feel refreshed when you get up the next morning.

Our online doctors can identify any symptoms and possible causes of sleep apnoea, and write you a fast referral for a sleep specialist who will help you manage the problem.

Who is affected by sleep apnoea?

It’s thought that around 2.5 million people in the UK suffers from some form of sleep apnoea.

While anyone can get sleep apnoea, it’s more common in men and people over 40, while there are also a number of lifestyle factors that increase your chances of sleep apnoea.

Of course, as it happens when you’re asleep, many people don’t know they have it. The symptoms of sleep apnoea are often first identified by a partner or family member.

Sleep apnoea symptoms

The symptoms of sleep apnoea can be split into those that occur while you’re asleep, and those that you’ll notice when you’re awake.

While you’re asleep, you might snore loudly, breathe loudly, snort and appear to be gasping for air. This is something that’s more likely to be noticed by a partner, or others who share your home.

As a result of your interrupted sleep, during the day you might notice symptoms such as:

  • Feeling sleepy
  • Feeling irritable
  • Headache
  • Trouble concentrating

These things can affect your performance at work, social life and relationships with others, so it’s important to see a doctor if you feel you’re not sleeping properly.

Sleep apnoea diagnosis

To diagnose your sleep disorder, our online doctors will ask about some or all of the following during your consultation:

  • Your symptoms
  • How you’re sleeping
  • Your medical and family history
  • Any medication you’re taking

They might also be interested in your weight and neck measurements, both of which can indicate how likely sleep apnoea is.

If your answers suggest that sleep apnoea is a possibility, our doctors can refer you to a sleep specialist, who will analyse you further.

You might be asked to attend a sleep centre so you can be assessed overnight. Electrodes will be attached to you so the specialists can record your breathing, oxygen levels, heart rate and snoring. This is known as a polysomnography test.

The results will lead to one of three diagnoses:

  • Mild sleep apnoea - sleep is interrupted 5 to 14 times per hour.
  • Moderate sleep apnoea - sleep is interrupted 15 to 30 times per hour.
  • Severe sleep apnoea - sleep is interrupted more than 30 times per hour.

Sleep apnoea causes

There are a number of factors that can increase your risk of sleep apnoea.

Not all of these are within your control. We’ve already talked about how the condition is more likely in men and people aged over 40. Other potential reasons behind your sleep apnoea include:

  • Being overweight
  • A neck larger than 17in
  • Taking sleeping pills
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Going through the menopause
  • An unusual neck structure, a large tongue or a small jaw
  • A deviated septum or other condition that blocks your nasal passages
  • Sleeping on your back
  • A family history of sleep apnoea or other sleep disorders

Sleep apnoea treatment

Once you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnoea, there are a number of treatment options. These will depend on the possible causes and the severity of your symptoms.

Our doctors can suggest:

  • Lifestyle changes
    • Losing weight
    • Changing your sleeping position
    • Stopping smoking
    • Reducing your alcohol intake
    • Avoiding sleeping tablets
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Device - A mask that covers either you nose, or your nose and mouth, and passes air into your airways while you sleep.

    Alternatively, you might also be given a Bilateral Positive Airway Pressure (BPAP) Device, which provides different air pressures for when you’re breathing in and breathing out.

  • Mandibular Advancement Device (MAD) - This brings your tongue and lower jaw forward, away from your airways. It’s normally only used for mild cases, as there’s no evidence to suggest it works if symptoms are severe.

Surgery is a possibility, but it’s usually only used in severe cases after all other options have failed.

Sleep apnoea in pregnancy

If left untreated, sleep apnoea can increase your baby’s risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and low birth weight. It can also make premature birth more likely.

If our online doctors suspect you have sleep apnoea, you’ll be referred for the same tests as anyone else. These tests are non-invasive, so there’s no risk to your baby.

The same goes for your sleep apnoea treatment. You won’t be given any medication, and the devices such as CPAP or MAD won’t affect your baby.

In fact, some of the lifestyle changes that can help with sleep apnoea are also good for your overall health.

Read more about sleep apnoea and pregnancy.

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