What is sleep apnoea and why is it such a big problem?

Loud snoring or waking in the night could be symptoms of a serious condition that can lead to stroke and heart failure if untreated. 


Most sufferers of snoring may simply brush it off like that - just snoring.  

Or perhaps you notice shortness of breath when you wake from sleep. 

Both could be symptoms of a sleep-breathing disorder, obstructive sleep apnoea, and recent research has found that it is widely undiagnosed in the UK. 


What’s more concerning, is that sleep apnoea is linked to an alarming risk of heart attacks and stroke. 

In addition to snoring, sufferers of obstructive sleep apnoea is characterized by pauses in breathing whilst asleep that are at least 10 seconds long.  


This is caused by the upper airway (the throat) becoming blocked, partially or completely. The amount of air getting into the lungs is reduced, resulting in loud gasping and snorting sounds. 

Another type, known as, Central sleep apnoea, is where breathing is affected by the brain signals not being sent to the breathing muscles. This type of sleep apnoea is most often caused as a side effect of another existing illness. 

If you, or others, have noticed you have loud snoring, difficulty breathing during sleep, and sleep deprivation, you should seek advice from a medical professional. Read on to see if you might be suffering from Obstructive sleep apnoea. 


How do I know if I have sleep apnoea? 

Symptoms of Obstructive sleep apnoea include: 

  1. Loud snoring 
  1. Breathing stops for at least 10 seconds during sleep, then starts again  
  1. Gasping, choking or snorting noises 
  1. Waking up frequently in the night 
  1. Feeling tired during the day 
  1. Morning headache 
  1. Memory loss 

A sufferer may not experience all symptoms. 


Who is at risk of obstructive sleep apnoea? 


Experts from a 2019 study in Sleep Medicine, found that sleep apnoea in the UK has risen drastically in the last 20 years. It may not be a coincidence that this coincides with a sharp rise in Obesity. 

Those most at risk are: 

  1. Those that are overweight or obese 

Although obesity increases the risk of this sleep disorder, not all sufferers are overweight. A 2017 article in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, reported that over 50% of their participants with obstructive sleep apnoea were not obese. 25% of participants had a healthy body mass index. 

2. Women with polycystic ovary syndrome 

3. Adult men (roughly 50% more likely than women) 

A small percentage of children develop sleep apnoea. One study this year suggests the figure is approximately 1-4% of children. 

4. Regular smokers 

Cigarette smoke causes an inflamed and damaged upper airway. This can increase the likelihood of obstruction during sleep. 

5. Those who regularly drink alcohol before bed 

Similarly, alcohol before going to bed, leads to a high risk of obstruction of the airway during sleep. It also decreases the level of oxygen in the blood. 


Can sleep apnoea be cured? 

It is possible to be treated for sleep apnoea.  

Sleep researchers and the NHS recommend the best solution is losing weight if you are obese or have a higher body mass index than is healthy.  

Maintaining a healthy weight can cure sleep apnoea and reduce sleep deprivation. In extreme cases surgery is another option, to remove extra tissue from the throat.  

If you think you may have sleep apnoea, contact your local GP. The NHS may be able to run sleep tests to diagnose the problem. They may offer therapy such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) masks.