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What are sleep apnea symptoms?

Learn what sleep apnea symptoms are and find out about treatment options.

Chronic daytime fatigue is a common sleep apnea symptom. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Chronic daytime fatigue is a common sleep apnea symptom.

According to the National Institutes of Health, almost 12 million Americans exhibit sleep apnea symptoms. However, because many sleep apnea symptoms occur during sleep, or during brief periods of semi-consciousness, identifying the condition can be difficult. In fact, many sleep apnea sufferers don’t even know they exhibit symptoms until a partner informs them of their fitful sleep.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are two major types of sleep apnea. The first is known as obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common form, is caused by the throat muscles relaxing excessively during sleep. The second, central sleep apnea, occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the respiratory system. Both of these conditions cause similar symptoms. 

Sleep apnea is primarily characterized by a brief disruption in breathing during sleep — in fact, the word apnea comes from the Greek meaning, “without breath.” When someone with sleep apnea stops breathing, the sympathetic nervous system signals to the body to wake up. In serious sleep apnea cases, this can happen several hundred times a night. Not surprisingly, this wreaks havoc on the sleep cycle.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Most sleep apnea symptoms manifest in everyday waking life, but they are easy to miss or are often blamed on something else. For example, chronic lethargy during the day is the primary sleep apnea symptom, but most people attribute it to poor diet or lack of exercise (though those factors certainly won’t help matters). Other daytime sleep apnea symptoms include an inability to concentrate, headaches, sore throat, forgetfulness, anxiety and depression. 

Nighttime sleep apnea symptoms are difficult to notice without close observation. Classic sleep apnea symptoms include frequent waking during the night, bouts of snoring interrupted with gasps or waking up with shortness of breath.


Though sleep apnea itself isn’t necessarily dangerous, it can lead to serious complications. Some of these complications include higher susceptibility to accidents, high blood pressure and even heart failure due to a lack of oxygen in the blood. And the danger associated with depriving your partner of sleep goes without saying. If you have more than two or three sleep apnea symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor to get a diagnosis and treatment.

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