Can Sleep Apnea Kill You? It's Unlikely. However, There are Dangers and Risk Factors You Need To Know

Close-up of a heavy-set man sleeping in bed with his mouth slightly open.

Can Sleep Apnea Kill You?

It’s unlikely that sleep apnea could be a direct cause of death. The breathing pauses usually aren’t significant enough to obstruct the airway for extended periods of time.

However, sleep apnea can contribute to other potentially fatal health conditions. Let’s take a closer look at sleep apnea including what it is, risk factors, how it's diagnosed, the short and longer-term risks and treatments.

  • Sleep apnea is a condition that causes a person’s airway to become obstructed. This interrupts their breathing and may lead to a restless night’s sleep.
  • This sleep disorder can be caused by excessive weight gain, obesity, and other factors like chronic snoring.
  • If left untreated, sleep apnea can contribute to the development of potentially fatal medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart attacks, and asthma.
  • Treatment options for sleep apnea include surgical procedures, using sleep masks, and making certain lifestyle changes.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition where a person’s airway is continuously obstructed and their breathing interrupted while sleeping.

This obstruction causes oxygen levels in the body to drop and may prompt the body to wake up as a way to reopen the airways.

Suddenly and frequently waking up throughout the night can prevent people from getting a restful night’s sleep — a factor that is essential for optimal health.

Sleep apnea is a serious disorder that affects millions of Americans.

The American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) estimates that around 22 million people suffer from this condition.

However, around 90% of people with sleep apnea don’t even know that they suffer from this condition.

Sleep apnea can contribute to the development of other chronic — and even fatal — medical conditions if it’s left undetected and untreated.

In fact, statistics show that around 38,000 Americans die from sleep apnea-related factors each year.

These deaths are often caused by heart disease, substance abuse, or mental health issues that developed as a result of long-term sleep apnea that is left untreated or undiagnosed.

This article will take a closer look at the risk factors and dangers associated with sleep apnea, as well as how you can treat and avoid them.

A young woman lying in bed with her hands over her eyes, possibly scared.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three main types of sleep apnea that we will take a closer look at in this section.

Each type has its own key characteristics and treatment options. If you’re unsure about your specific condition, it’s recommended that you speak to your doctor.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when tissue in the upper airway — like the tongue, soft palate, or uvula — falls or collapses into the throat, blocking normal airflow.

This temporarily reduces or completely stops the flow of oxygen coming into the body.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

This form of sleep apnea occurs when your airway becomes blocked when your brain fails to send the right communication signals to your respiratory system.

Central sleep apnea may be an indication of issues with your brainstem or severe obesity. It can also be caused by medications like opioid painkillers.

Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome (CompSAS)

Complex sleep apnea syndrome is a combination of central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea. This means that patients are likely to experience symptoms of both conditions.

It’s not yet clear what causes complex sleep apnea syndrome to develop, but it can be treated in the same way as other sleep apnea disorders.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Sleep apnea can be a challenging condition to identify and it should always be diagnosed by a medical professional.

If you think that you might have signs of sleep apnea, you may be experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Waking abruptly with a gasp or choking feeling
  • Snoring
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Waking up with headaches
  • Mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Mental health issues that may result in anxiety or depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness that may lead to falling asleep while working, watching television, or even driving.

If you are experienceing any of the above sleep apnea symptoms make an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible to determine whether you have sleep apnea.

They can also help you find the right treatment to alleviate your symptoms.

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

There are a few different issues that can cause sleep apnea. Most of these risk factors are manageable with the right treatment.

Weight gain and obesity

Research shows that there is a strong link between weight gain and the likelihood of developing OSA.

When a person is overweight, the tissue in the back of their airway can enlarge. This tissue can start to sag and drop down into the throat, obstructing the airflow while a person is sleeping.

When this disruption happens, it may cause the person to stop breathing for up to 10 seconds.

Chronic snoring

Chronic snoring may cause sleep apnea. Snoring sends vibrations through the airway that can contribute to swelling and nerve receptor damage.

When the airway becomes damaged and swollen, it narrows. The muscles meant to keep it open can also weaken.

This contributes to airflow obstruction and may disrupt normal breathing patterns.

Other risk factors that can contribute to sleep apnea

There are a number of other factors that may increase the risk of developing sleep apnea. Let’s take a look at some of these causes of sleep apnea:

  • People with a thicker neck circumference may have narrower airways that are more prone to being obstructed.
  • A narrowed airway passed on genetically or caused by enlarged tonsils can result in an obstruction.
  • Men are more likely to develop sleep apnea. However, women are at an increased risk if they’re overweight or are going through menopause.
  • Sleep apnea more commonly occurs in older people and individuals with a family history of this condition.
  • Frequent alcohol and substance abuse may also cause the muscles of the airway to relax too much and weaken, leading to obstructions. You may also be less prone to waking up if you’re using sedatives, which can make breathing obstructions fatal.
  • Smokers may be more likely to develop sleep apnea than nonsmokers. This is because smoking increases inflammation and fluid retention in the airway, which may cause more frequent obstructions.
  • If you have frequent nasal congestion and have trouble breathing through your nose, there’s a higher chance of developing OSA.
  • Medical conditions like cardiovascular issues, lung diseases, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) may increase the risk of developing OSA.
Key Point: How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

Sleep apnea should be diagnosed by a professional sleep specialist (somnologist). They will perform nocturnal polysomnography, also known as a sleep test.

During polysomnography, you will be hooked up to equipment that monitors the following while you sleep:

  • Heart, lung, and brain activity
  • Breathing patterns
  • Arm and leg movements
  • Blood oxygen levels

The sleep study can last between eight to nine hours. Your doctor may also ask you to come in for more than one night to increase the accuracy of your diagnosis.

If you are unable to sleep, your doctor may allow you to take medication that can help — like melatonin or Benadryl.

Once the test is complete, your doctor will be able to use your results to determine if you have sleep apnea and assess the severity of your diagnosis.

This test usually takes place in a specialized facility like a sleep clinic, but can also be done at home. Your doctor will be able to recommend the best course of action.

What Happens if You Don’t Treat Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea can cause oxygen levels to drop, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response. This makes your heart beat faster and causes your arteries to narrow.

When this response happens frequently due to untreated sleep apnea, it can contribute to a number of cardiovascular issues, like:

  • Higher blood pressure
  • Higher heart rate
  • Higher blood volume
  • Increased inflammation and stress

Untreated sleep apnea can also cause brain damage that may lead to the following mental health issues:

  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Studies have shown that people who suffer from OSA may be at a higher risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

This disease is caused by increased insulin resistance, inflammation, and cholesterol imbalances — common side effects of untreated sleep apnea.

Untreated sleep apnea may also increase the risk of having a fatal stroke or heart attack and suffering from sudden cardiac death by 30%.

You may also suffer from the following factors that can lower your quality of life and impact your ability to perform or enjoy daily activities:

  • Frequent mood swings
  • Chronic fatigue and excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Loss in productivity
  • Frequent headaches
  • Loss of appetite
Key Point: When Does Sleep Apnea Become Severe?

The severity of sleep apnea is usually determined by counting the number of “events” that occur per hour.

“Events” is the term used to describe instances when a person experiences breathing pauses. These are then measured against the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI).

Healthcare professionals will then use the following AHI categories to make a diagnosis:

  • Mild: 5-14 events per hour.
  • Moderate: 15-30 events per hour.
  • Severe: More than 30 events per hour.

Based on your diagnosis, they will be able to recommend treatment options and lifestyle changes to help you manage your symptoms.

A close-up of a man's right hand clutching the right side of his chest. The photo signifies he may be having a heart attack.

Short-term risks

The term short-term risks describes the dangers of sleep apnea within a specified period of time — like when you’re in your deepest sleep.

These risks are usually at their highest between midnight and 6 a.m. when most people enter their deepest sleep phase — also known as the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase.

Short-term risks of sleep apnea involve the dangers of breathing pauses that may disrupt your cardiac rhythm and cause:

  • Atrial fibrillation (irregular or rapid heart rhythm that can cause blood clots)
  • Heart attacks
  • Stroke

These risks can usually be mitigated with the treatment options that we’ll discuss a bit later.

Chronic risks

Chronic sleep apnea risks develop when disordered breathing continues for a longer period of time.

This can contribute to the development of serious health conditions like:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Asthma
  • Depression and other mental health problems
  • Memory issues

Long-term sleep apnea can also increase the risk of daytime sleepiness — a condition that may be fatal if you’re driving and get into an accident.

Sleep apnea may also increase the risk of oxygen deprivation, which can be fatal.

What Are Some Sleep Apnea Treatment Options?

Although there is currently no cure for sleep apnea, there are many ways to treat and manage your sleep apnea symptoms. Let’s take a closer look some sleep apnea treatment options.

  • Sleep Apnea Treatment 1: Weight loss: Losing weight is one of the most common ways to treat sleep apnea symptoms. This is because weight loss reduces excess tissue in the airway that can cause obstructions. It also reduces the risk of developing chronic heart disease or other medical conditions.
  • Sleep Apnea Treatment 2: CPAP therapy: Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a method for treating sleep apnea with a specialized device called a sleep mask. This mask helps to relieve sleep apnea symptoms as well as improve the quality of your sleep.
  • Sleep Apnea Treatment 3: Surgery: Some surgical procedures — like reconstruction of the jaw, nose, or tongue — may help reduce the risk of breathing obstructions. These procedures often remove or reposition tissue to prevent it from blocking the airway.

Surgery may not always be an effective solution, so it’s recommended that you seek professional medical advice before making a decision.

Some people with OSA may also be more prone to breathing problems when they’re sedated and positioned to lie on their backs.

This is something that should be discussed with your doctor beforehand so that you can find a way to overcome it.

  • Sleep Apnea Treatment 4: Lifestyle changes: Other than weight loss, some lifestyle changes can also help relieve sleep apnea symptoms.

These may include:

  • Avoiding sleeping on your back
  • Reducing alcohol intake before bed
  • Quitting smoking
  • Exercising regularly
Key Point: What Are the Risks of Using a CPAP Machine?

Although CPAP machines are generally safe to use, they become a health risk when they’re not cleaned regularly.

A dirty CPAP machine can harbor germs that can be transferred onto the skin when wearing the mask. This may cause skin conditions like acne or rashes to appear.

The bacteria and oils on a dirty mask can also cause an infection of the skin and even make you sick.

When using a CPAP machine, it’s also important to ensure that the mask isn’t too tight. If it presses into the skin too much, this friction can cause irritation.

Are You Worried You May Have Severe Sleep Apnea?

If you are experiencing some of the symptoms we’ve covered in this article or are worried about your sleep apnea, it’s time to make an appointment. Head over to LifeMD to speak with a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner from your smartphone or computer.

Dr. Banita Sehgal

Dr. Sehgal received her medical degree from Western University in Los Angeles and trained as Chief Resident at White Memorial Medical Center, also in Los Angeles. She’s been practicing medicine for 20+ years and has a specific interest in women’s health.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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