Q. How do I know if my partner has sleep apnea?
A. Sleep apnea is a common condition in which breathing pauses temporarily during sleep. As you sleep, the muscles that keep your airway open relax, which can narrow the airway. “There’s a spectrum from snoring to shallow breathing to sleep apnea,” says James Mojica, a pulmonologist and sleep specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. When people develop apnea, Mojica says, they pause at least 10 seconds without breathing, followed by a start that wakens them and restores the muscle tone of the airway. Pauses may happen about five times per hour in mild cases, or more than 30 times per hour in severe cases.
Surprisingly, says Mojica, “even in severe cases, many times patients are completely unaware.” They only discover the problem when their partner brings it to their attention.
Not all snorers have apnea, but all people with apnea snore, says Mojica. Other signs include gasping or choking-like sounds, and irregular breathing. People with apnea may feel excessively sleepy during the day due to lost sleep, and sometimes wake up with a headache in the morning. Obesity is a risk factor for developing apnea, and drinking alcohol can worsen it. It’s more common in men, but women increasingly develop sleep apnea after menopause.
Mojica says that the only way to know for sure if you have sleep apnea is to get a sleep study. It also allows doctors to determine the severity of the problem, which guides the choice of treatment.