Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

brand logo

Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(5):online

See related article on obstructive sleep apnea

What is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)?

OSA is a common disorder that causes people to temporarily stop or decrease breathing repeatedly during sleep. It affects up to 14% of people.

If I snore, does that mean I have OSA?

Not necessarily. There are many reasons people snore, but snoring is common in almost everyone who has OSA. Other signs and symptoms of OSA include:

  • Gasping for air while sleeping

  • Morning headache

  • Daytime sleepiness

  • High blood pressure

  • Depression

What causes OSA?

It can happen for many reasons, but increasing age and obesity are the most common risk factors. A neck size of 16 inches or greater is a risk for OSA. Also, men are three times more likely to have OSA than women.

How do I know if I have it?

Your doctor will take a careful history and do a physical exam. You or your doctor can complete a screening checklist. If your doctor thinks you have OSA, the diagnosis can be made by sleep studies either at your home or at a special sleep center.

How is it treated?

The standard treatment for OSA is a machine called CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure). CPAP uses pressurized air to keep the airway open at night. Most CPAP machines are about 12 × 6 × 6 inches, and weigh between 4 and 8 lb. While you sleep, you will wear a mask that connects to the CPAP machine. Some masks fit over the mouth and nose. Other masks fit over the nose only.

I don't like wearing my CPAP. Are there other treatment options?

Yes. The first option is to try different mask fittings for your CPAP. Your doctor may also suggest a BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) machine, which may be more comfortable. CPAP forces air at a continuous pressure, but BiPAP forces air at higher pressures when you breathe in and at lower pressures when you breathe out. In rare cases, some people may also consider dental fittings or surgery to treat OSA. For people who are obese, weight loss may be helpful as well.

What happens if I don't get treated for OSA?

Untreated OSA may lead to serious health conditions or problems such as:

  • Heart disease, including heart failure

  • Stroke

  • Hypertension (not controlled with medicine)

  • Depression

  • Increased risk of motor vehicle crashes

  • Overall increased risk of death

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Sleep Apnea Association

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

National Library of Medicine

National Sleep Foundation

Continue Reading

More in AFP

More in PubMed

Copyright © 2016 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP.  See permissions for copyright questions and/or permission requests.