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Apnea is the medical term used to describe slowed or stopped breathing. Apnea can affect people of all ages, and the cause depends on the type of apnea you have.
Apnea usually occurs while you’re sleeping. For this reason, it’s often called sleep apnea. Usually, sleep apnea is treatable with medication and lifestyle changes. Occasionally, surgery is needed.
Untreated apnea can lead to heart and brain problems due to a lack of oxygen.
Apnea occurs when the airways become blocked or when the brain fails to send a signal to breathe. The cause of your apnea is directly related to the type of apnea you have.
This type of apnea occurs when there is an obstruction in the airways preventing proper breathing. One of the main causes of obstructive apnea is enlarged tonsils.
In central apnea, the area of the brain that facilitates breathing doesn’t function properly. This form of apnea is most commonly seen in immature babies and results from improper development of this area of their brain.
This form of apnea is a mixture of both obstructive and central apnea. It can occur when you’re asleep or awake.
Sleep apnea has many causes. The most common include:
During an episode of sleep apnea, a person is unable to breathe sufficiently due to a narrowing of the airway, which causes them to snore loudly and take long breaks in between breaths.
There are many types of central sleep apnea. Each type has its own cause:
Contact your family doctor immediately if you or a loved one develops any of the following symptoms:
If you hear someone who is snoring suddenly go quiet, or you notice long pauses in their breathing, check to see if they are breathing. If they are not, call 911. Follow the emergency operator’s instructions on how to rouse the person and assist their breathing until the paramedics arrive. While people with sleep apnea typically begin breathing again on their own, extended periods without oxygen should be cause for alarm.
Treatment options vary widely, depending on what kind of apnea you have and what causes it. Before offering treatment, your doctor will ask questions about:
Sleep testing is often used to diagnose sleep apnea. There are many kinds of sleep studies. Most involve you sleeping in a medical facility with monitors reading your brain, nerve, and heart signals, as well as your oxygen levels. The most common sleep studies include:
Approaches to treating apnea include the following:
Many different medical conditions can cause apnea. Most often, the first line of treatment is to treat these underlying conditions. This often includes losing weight if you’re overweight.
Certain medications can induce apnea. Sometimes, changing these medications can help you improve.
This mask is called a continuous positive airway pressure mask, or CPAP mask. Wearing it supplies you with constant air while you sleep.
Other treatments for apnea can include:
If you have severe apnea, your doctor may perform surgery called a tracheostomy to create an opening to your throat. This opening, or stoma, is then fitted with a tube to facilitate your breathing.
Heart problems may occur due to sudden drops in your blood pressure and blood oxygen levels that occur with slowed or stopped breathing. Early detection and treatment of apnea is the best way to prevent this complication.
Written by: April Kahn
Medically reviewed on: Oct 28, 2016: Carissa Stephens, RN, BSN, CCRN, CPN
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