Sleep Apnea: Warning Signs and Diagnosis

Dr. Adrian Rawlinson, MD
Medically reviewed by Adrian Rawlinson, MD Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 9/9/2019

If you wake the entire house with your snoring, your problem may be bigger than just noise. 

About 22 million Americans have sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that can lead to serious health problems if left untreated. But treatment is typically pretty simple. Knowing the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea and seeking a diagnosis if you suspect you might have it are the best things you can possibly do.

What is Sleep Apnea? 

Sleep apnea is one of many types of sleep disorders; one where you stop breathing while sleeping. Scary? Yes. But sleep apnea is highly treatable. 

There are three general types of sleep apnea, according to the Mayo Clinic

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea: This is the most common form of sleep apnea, caused when the muscles of your throat relax and block your airway. 
  2. Central sleep apnea: This type results from communication failures between your brain and the muscles that control breathing. 
  3. Complex sleep apnea: This occurs when you have both obstructive and central sleep apnea. It’s also referred to as “treatment-emergent central sleep apnea.”

What Are the Warning Signs/Symptoms of Sleep Apnea? 

Often, the person you share a bed with is the first one to notice you might have sleep apnea, as people with sleep apnea snore loudly. But the snoring is broken up by complete and utter silence — the periods where you stop breathing altogether. People with sleep apnea may wake suddenly throughout the night as they stop and start breathing, leading to restless sleep. 

You may have sleep apnea if you experience these symptoms and warning signs

  • Daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • Difficulty focusing or paying attention during the day
  • Waking frequently during the night 
  • Insomnia 
  • Loud snoring
  • Sudden gasping for air while sleeping 
  • Headaches upon waking
  • Moodiness 
  • Periods of not breathing while asleep
  • Waking with a dry mouth 
  • Poor libido 

Sleep Apnea Complications

Sleep apnea doesn’t just lead to tiredness or restless nights. It can also increase your risks of certain conditions/diseases. Possible complications of the sleep disorder include: 

  • Kidney disease
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Asthma
  • Heart disease 
  • High blood pressure
  • Eye disorders
  • Type 2 diabetes or gluten intolerance

Sleep apnea can also put a strain  on your relationship — if you’re snoring loudly and stopping breathing altogether during the night, your partner is likely losing sleep too. 

Sleep Apnea Risk Factors 

There are certain things that put you at a higher risk of developing sleep apnea. When these factors are present and you’re experiencing sleep apnea symptoms, it makes sense to talk to your doctor. 

Age. You’re more likely to develop sleep apnea as you age. Central sleep apnea in particular is more common in middle-aged and older people. 

Sex. Men are more likely than women to develop sleep apnea, but the difference decreases with age. In other words, men are far more likely than women to have sleep apnea while younger. 

Weight. Being overweight or obese increases your chances of developing sleep apnea (among an array of other health problems). 

Lifestyle choices. Alcohol, smoking and unhealthy eating habits can all increase your risk of sleep apnea. 

Heart problems. Congestive heart failure increases sleep apnea risk.

Stroke. Suffering a stroke increases the risk of sleep apnea. 

Family history. Having family members with sleep apnea puts you at a greater risk. However, experts note, even when a family history is present, lifestyle choices can lessen the risk. 

When Should You Get Tested for Sleep Apnea? 

If you have any suspicions that you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor right away. They can evaluate your symptoms and risk factors to get a better idea of your personal situation. They can also determine if a sleep apnea test is warranted. Don’t wait for the symptoms to become more severe. Treating sleep apnea can lead to a better night’s sleep and better health overall. It all begins with getting a diagnosis. 

How to Test for Sleep Apnea

Your doctor will use a variety of tools to test for sleep apnea or refer you to a sleep specialist. This evaluation begins with a consultation. They may ask you to keep a log of your symptoms — identifying each night whether you woke, how often and any other symptoms you experienced. They’ll also evaluate your family history and risk factors, and whether you may have other conditions related to sleep apnea. 

A physical exam will look at your weight, your tonsils and your upper airway. Your doctor may even measure your neck — a larger neck circumference (greater than 17 inches, for men) may indicate a higher risk of developing sleep apnea. They may also examine your heart, lungs and other bodily systems to ensure you’re not developing complications. 

Finally, your doctor may order a sleep study. When people think of a sleep apnea test, they’re most often thinking of a sleep study. 

Sleep studies (also known as polysomnography) are most often done at a specialty clinic, though they may be done at home. If done at a clinic, you’ll check in in the evening, so that you can sleep there through the night. 

The doctors will attach various machines to you to measure your brain waves, breathing, heart rate and oxygen levels while you sleep. You’ll rest through the night in a dark room, where the specialist has access to the machine readings and visual access to you. During a sleep test, they’ll also measure your eye movements, snoring patterns, cycles of wakefulness, your body position and more. They may also have you test a CPAP machine, a commonly used sleep apnea treatment. 

When morning comes, you’ll be given a follow-up appointment time to meet and discuss the results. 

How to Test for Sleep Apnea at Home 

In some cases, you may be able to test for sleep apnea at home. These are done via a prescription from your doctor; not through any over-the-counter or online apparatus. You’ll be given an at-home breathing monitor to track your breathing and oxygen levels throughout the night, and your doctor will evaluate the results after-the-fact. 

At-home sleep apnea tests are generally more cost effective (and convenient!) than spending the night at a sleep center. However, they have a greater risk of returning inaccurate results. 

How to Beat a Sleep Apnea Test

Believe it or not, some folks hope to beat sleep tests, whether to appear healthier than they truly are or to convince themselves there’s nothing wrong. We have one thing to say to this group: 

If you’re hoping to pass a sleep test when you may have sleep apnea, don’t. You could be putting your health at risk. Untreated sleep apnea can increase your risk of heart problems and even cancer, as well as the other complications we talked about above. Whatever reason you think you need to hide your sleep problems isn’t worth the potentially terrible consequences of going without treatment. 

How Much Does a Sleep Apnea Test Cost? 

What you’ll pay for a sleep apnea test depends on numerous factors, the first of which is whether you have insurance or not. 

Insured: If you have health insurance, the cost of your sleep test will depend on the location of your test and the specifics of your insurance policy. You can ask your medical provider(s) for estimates before hand, so you’re not caught off guard. Go the extra step and call your insurance company to ensure your doctors are in-network and the test will be covered. 

Uninsured: Obviously, you stand to spend more on a sleep test than someone who has health insurance. If you’re worried about affordability, ask your doctor if an at-home test is available and appropriate for you. Also, look for doctors that provide discounts and payment plans to self-pay patients. An increasing number of clinics have special policies to ensure the uninsured have access to treatment. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.