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Sleep Apnea Causes and Warning Signs

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Don’t know much about Sleep Apnea cause? Let this post be a guide! Learn about the different types of Sleep Apnea and their medical causes. Understand how obesity can contribute to Sleep apnea and how smoking, drinking, and nasal congestion can be ruining your good night’s sleep.

Top Sleep Apnea Causes

Sleep Apnea is a disease that can worsen existing cardiac problems and puts patients at extreme risk of dying due to a complete blockage of the airway during sleep. Sleep Apnea is a serious illness that should be treated when diagnosed.

Doing so will lower blood pressure, improve survival, and provide the patient with benefits beyond a good night’s sleep. If you’re reading this, you may already have a good understanding of Sleep Apnea. The focus of this article is to discuss the signs and symptoms of Sleep Apnea as well as risk factors to look out for. What are sleep apnea causes? How does a person get Sleep Apnea?


What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is a disease where the muscles of the tongue, throat, and airway relax during sleep and partially or fully block the airway. These Sleep Apnea causes create a loss of oxygen in the blood, which can impact the brain, heart, and other bodily systems. If left untreated, Sleep Apnea can cause death, heart attack, or stroke.

The most common treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea is CPAP therapy. CPAP therapy involves using a breathing device, known as a CPAP machine, to blow air into the airway. This opens the throat and allows much-needed oxygen to reach the lungs. Successful treatment means more energy, lower blood pressure, and a healthier life.


What Causes Sleep Apnea?

obesity is a cause of sleep apnea


For individuals that struggle with weight, they may be at risk for developing Sleep Apnea. According to the Ochsner Journal in an article titled Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Growing Problem, it’s estimated that 1 in 5 adults have this condition with nearly 85% being undiagnosed. That huge number reflects the seriousness of the issue, and the many different Sleep Apnea causes.

There are a few risk factors for Sleep Apnea that you need to watch out for, which can include obesity and weight. An obese individual may have more tissue in the airway than a person who is at a healthy weight. At night, when these tissues relax, they can obstruct or block the airway completely.

Staying at a healthy weight is not only important for physical well-being, it can help keep a person free from Sleep Apnea. Obesity is the leading cause of Sleep Apnea, and when combined with alcohol and drug use can form a deadly combination. Losing weight is a way to reduce the impact of Sleep Apnea in your life, and reduce the need for CPAP therapy, which is currently the best way to treat Sleep Apnea.

CPAP and weight loss can reduce the size of excess
tissues that can be found in the mouth and throat, and it can open the airway making it easier for a person to get the oxygen they need for better sleep.

Some people are just born with a more narrow airway than usual. In these cases, the narrow airway can cause the blockages, causing sleep apnea. CPAP therapy or surgery can be used to resolve issues where heredity plays a role.


Nasal Congestion

For individuals that have difficulty breathing through the nose, this can lead to Sleep Apnea. It doesn’t matter if it’s through genetics or whether it’s caused by something like allergies or a cold. Nasal congestion is a way to possibly develop Sleep Apnea. This is especially true if you breathe through your nose at night.

CPAP therapy can use air pressure to open the airway and make it possible for a person to breathe at night.

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Smoking, Alcohol, and Drug Use

smoking, alcohol, and drug use can worsen sleep apnea symptoms

Substances such as alcohol and sedative drugs can cause the airway to relax to an unsafe size during sleep, and at the very least cause snoring. Smoking impacts an individual differently than alcohol and other drugs. Smoking can cause inflammation of the throat. Smokers also produce greater amounts of mucus and sinus fluids.

This inflammation can cause the tissue in the airway to expand and partially block the airway. These sleep apnea causes can impact sleep, even in people that are not obese. If you or your sleeping companion notice excessive snoring while you sleep and you aren’t overweight, it may be worth asking yourself if it could be something else.

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Mental Health: A Risk Factor to Watch

A recent study from 2016 identified people suffering from psychosis, poor social skills, and impaired social functioning as being also at risk for developing Sleep Apnea. Because people with mental health conditions sometimes take medication that can relax the muscles of the throat, this can be a cause of Sleep Apnea.

Some medications also cause weight gain, which can lead to a person developing Sleep Apnea. The article also mentions that because some individuals with mental health challenges drink alcohol excessively or smoke, these risk factors contribute to the individuals developing Sleep Apnea.


What is Central Sleep Apnea?
What Sleep Apnea Causes Play a Role?

Central Sleep Apnea is different from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (which we covered in the section above). Unlike an interruption of normal breathing from an obstruction, Central Sleep Apnea happens when the brain does not send the appropriate signals to the muscles that control breathing. Central Sleep Apnea is less common than Obstructive Sleep Apnea, and treating it is done differently.

There are many signs and symptoms of Sleep Apnea, that are important to watch out for, but for now let’s focus on Central Sleep Apnea.


Cheyne-Stokes Syndrome

In Cheyne-Stokes Syndrome, breathing gradually slows and weakens. Eventually, Central Sleep Apnea kicks in and breathing stops. Of the 22 million Americans who suffer from Sleep Apnea, only around 20% of those cases involve Central Sleep Apnea. Cheyne-Stokes breathing impacts roughly 50% of people that suffer from Congestive Heart Failure.

In fact, Cheyne-Stokes breathing is typically found in patients with severe heart trouble. If you don’t have Heart Failure or some other type of cardiac problems, then you may not have Cheyne-Stokes breathing, but only a doctor can know for sure.


Elevation and High Altitude

Going to mountainous regions at high altitude, which may include cities like Denver, can sometimes impact breathing. High altitude destinations have lower oxygen content than locations near sea level. Some individuals may find that breathing is more shallow, and the lack of oxygen can cause short quick breaths. Certain elevations can pose a risk for individuals that have risk factors for Central Sleep Apnea.


Opioid Treatment

Patients that are on an opioid treatment regimen may find that certain opioids cause breathing to become irregular or stop during sleep. This causes Central Sleep Apnea. Long-term opioid use can be detrimental to the entire body. If you think you may be experiencing Sleep Apnea as a result of opioid use, please consult your physician.


What is Complex Sleep Apnea?

Occasionally, some users of CPAP machines may develop Central Sleep Apnea while undergoing CPAP therapy. Sometimes continued CPAP therapy is good enough to reverse the problem. In other instances, the individual needs additional support from a doctor. When a CPAP patient develops Central Sleep Apnea, this is known as Complex Sleep Apnea.

Complex Sleep Apnea is a hybrid form of Sleep Apnea. It combines both Central Sleep Apnea and Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Treating Complex Sleep Apnea may require additional therapy equipment. Only a doctor can know for sure if you have Complex Sleep Apnea, so it’s important to keep your follow up appointments.

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Of all the risk factors and causes of Sleep Apnea, nothing is as prevalent a risk factor as obesity. Maintaining a healthy weight is important for many reasons, but it’s extremely helpful in reducing or eliminating the impacts of Sleep Apnea. Sleep Apnea can be a deadly disease and there are many ways a person can contract it.

Health is always going to be about the total picture. Drugs and medication for one condition may negatively impact another condition, so it’s important to talk to your doctor. Keeping these Sleep Apnea causes in mind is going to be important as you go through life and get on a path towards well-being.


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Also, what risk factors did you notice before getting treatment for Sleep Apnea? Has anyone noticed symptoms that might be Central Sleep Apnea? Let us know in the comments!


  • David Repasky

    David Repasky has been using CPAP treatment since 2017 and has first-hand experience with what it's like to live with Sleep Apnea. He brings the patient's perspective to the CPAP.com blog and has received formal training in CPAP machines, masks, and equipment.

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