Can Sleep Apnea Kill You? Here Are the Results From A Recent Study

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Sleep apnea1 is a disorder in which you repeatedly stop breathing while asleep. There are two primary types of sleep apnea: obstructive (OSA) and central (CSA)1. However, some people may experience both forms, and this is categorized as complex sleep apnea1 .

While some symptoms of this sleep disorder, like snoring, may come across as more of a nuisance, this condition can be quite severe. If you’re wondering whether sleep apnea can kill you, we’ll address that question. We’ll also discuss the important symptoms and treatments you should know about, along with other relevant health issues and questions related to sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea Survey

Sleep Apnea Survey

Do you know what sleep apnea is?
Do you know someone with sleep apnea?
Do you think you have sleep apnea?
Have you taken a sleep apnea test?
Have you been diagnosed with sleep apnea by a medical professional?

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Before we detail sleep apnea symptoms, it’s important to understand the difference between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). When you have obstructive sleep apnea, your throat muscles relax and therefore, block airflow into your lungs, which stops your breathing1 . Conversely, if you experience central sleep apnea, your brain isn’t sending the right signals to your muscles that control your breathing1 .

Sleep apnea comes with a wide variety of symptoms, and they may depend on the type of sleep apnea you experience. OSA is the more common form of this disorder, but OSA and CSA symptoms typically overlap1 . In some cases, a person may not even realize they’re experiencing signs of sleep apnea and their partner may tell them, for example, that they snore loudly at night.

The following are sleep apnea symptoms to be aware of1 .

  • Loud snoring
  • Breathing starts and stops during the night
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating while awake
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Excessive sleepiness during the day
  • Irritability

How to Classify Your Obstructive Sleep Apnea

If you experience obstructive sleep apnea2 , your breathing is interrupted for more than 10 seconds at a time while you’re sleeping. Periods of hypopnea are reductions in breathing and oxygen, while apnea periods occur when there is a full stop in breathing2 .

You experience mild obstructive sleep apnea if you have between five and 14 periods of hypopnea or apnea every hour2 . Moderate OSA is categorized by 15-30 hypopnea or apnea events per hour, and if you have severe obstructive sleep apnea, you’ll experience more than 30 periods of hypopnea or apnea each hour you sleep2.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Any problem that hinders your ability to sleep well can impact other aspects of your life and well-being. We suggest consulting your doctor if you have any of the sleep apnea symptoms we mentioned above.

Animated Image of a Woman Struggling to Fall Asleep Because Her Partner Has Sleep Apnea

The Health Risks of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can result in a variety of health risks. Dr. Randal Silver, DMD of Sleep Matters Clinic, explains that “Your body goes under tremendous stress every time it gets woken up, due to low oxygen levels caused by sleep apnea. This stress can have detrimental consequences.”

A Sleep-Deprived Partner

Frequent snoring and gasping for air can be problematic for not only your health but also your partner’s health. These loud noises may prevent your partner from getting a good, uninterrupted night’s rest, affecting their overall well-being.

Daytime Fatigue

If you experience excessive daytime sleepiness as a symptom of sleep apnea due to waking up frequently throughout the night, you may have trouble concentrating and could be more likely to exhibit irritable moods. Irritability and the inability to concentrate could result in poor performance at work or school. For those who commute to their job, sleepiness while driving can be highly dangerous as well.

High Blood Pressure and Heart Problems

According to the Mayo Clinic, individuals with sleep apnea may experience high blood pressure and heart problems1 . When you stop breathing, this creates a sudden drop in oxygen blood levels, which can cause your blood pressure to rise and strain the cardiovascular system1 .

Furthermore, sleep apnea increases your chance of getting a heart attack, stroke, or abnormal heartbeats1 .

Type 2 Diabetes

Health experts explain that sleep apnea can cause your body to develop a resistance to insulin and affect your glucose metabolism, increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes3 . Advanced age and obesity are risk factors for type 2 diabetes as well as sleep apnea. Along with sleep apnea, advanced age and obesity are some other risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes.

Illustration of a Man Snoring While Sleeping

Metabolic Syndrome

Sleep apnea has also been linked to metabolic syndrome4 . People living with this condition may experience hypertension, abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and an increase in waist circumference4 . A 2018 study5 suggests that metabolic syndrome could trigger obstructive sleep apnea, though additional research needs to be done to better understand the correlation between these two health conditions.

Surgery and Medication Complications

Major surgery, anesthesia, or certain medications could be problematic for patients with sleep apnea since they are easily susceptible to breathing issues. Therefore, Mayo Clinic experts recommend notifying your doctor of your sleep apnea before you undergo surgery1 .

Liver Problems

Those with sleep apnea are more vulnerable to abnormal liver tests, and are prone to scarring, which is also called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

How Does Sleep Apnea Kill You?

Partner Can't Sleep Because The Other One Snores

According to health experts, sleep apnea itself isn’t fatal, but rather the complications resulting from this sleep disorder, particularly cardiovascular-related problems, can cause death.

A study6 published in 2013 followed nearly 11,000 people. They found that obstructive sleep apnea predicted sudden cardiac death, which demonstrates that OSA is a risk factor for death related to cardiovascular-related problems..

Furthermore, experts warn that not treating a sleep apnea disorder could also prove deadly. Research7 points to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and premature death when sleep apnea is left untreated[5].

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are two primary ways to diagnose this disorder: nocturnal polysomnography or at-home sleep tests.

When you initially visit your doctor, they’ll probably perform an evaluation before referring you to a sleep center. At the sleep center, a specialist will likely have you undergo a nocturnal polysomnography test, in which you’ll be hooked up to equipment while you sleep. Using sensors, this equipment9  will monitor your sleep stages and cycles to see if there are irregularities or disruptions.

You may also have the choice of doing a sleep test at home instead of at a hospital or sleep center. During an at-home sleep study10 , you’ll use a portable breathing monitor provided by a healthcare provider.

Find Out More: Why Sleep Apnea is Often Misdiagnosed?

Nocturnal Polysomnography

During a nocturnal polysomnography, your brain waves, blood oxygen level, heart rate, breathing, and leg and eye movements are recorded while you sleep9. This test uses sensors and is the most common way to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea because it shows when there isn’t enough airflow into your lungs9. A nocturnal polysomnography usually takes place in a hospital or sleep center.

At-Home Sleep Tests

An at-home sleep study uses a breathing monitor that evaluates your airflow, respiratory effect, and oxygen level while you sleep8 . At-home tests are typically less expensive than those done elsewhere and are more convenient. Plus, you may feel more comfortable sleeping in your own bed. However, an at-home test typically isn’t as accurate or in-depth as a nocturnal polysomnography.

Want to know more? Check out our in-depth article about sleep studies.

A Doctor Listening to a Patient Illustration

Treatment of Sleep Apnea

You may be wondering whether sleep apnea treatments can reduce its complications. The answer is yes.

Whether you change parts of your lifestyle, use a continuous positive airway pressure machine or a Mandibular Advancement Device, or have surgery, these treatments can reduce the symptoms you experience. As a result, these should hopefully reduce complications you may encounter due to sleep apnea.

Make Lifestyle Changes

Your doctor will likely first advise you to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, decreasing alcohol intake, or quitting smoking, in order to reduce the risks associated with sleep apnea1 .

Sleeping on your side might also help to relieve the symptoms of sleep apnea because side sleeping11 helps keep your airways open. We also recommend looking at beds that are helpful for sleep apnea.

CPAP Machine – Continuous Positive Airway Pressure

People with moderate to severe sleep apnea usually need to use a CPAP machine, which is a small pump that looks like a mask12 covering your nose and mouth, delivering a constant, steady supply of compressed air.

illustration of CPAP kit

MAD – Mandibular Advancement Device

A mandibular advancement device13 (MAD) works to move the jaw and tongue forward, expanding the airway in order to minimize any restrictions in the back of the throat. MADs can greatly reduce snoring, which is a major symptom of sleep apnea13 . This device looks similar to mouthguards that athletes use in sports.


Surgery is considered a last resort for sleep apnea when other treatments have failed. There are a range of surgical treatments that have been used for sleep apnea, including tissue removal or shrinkage, soft palate implants, jaw repositioning, nerve stimulation, or tongue nerve stimulation8 . The Mayo Clinic reports that the most severe cases may require a tracheostomy, in which a surgeon makes an opening in your neck and inserts a tube to help you breathe8 .

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a CPAP machine make you sick?

A CPAP machine can make you sick if you don’t clean and maintain it well. A contaminated CPAP device14 could expose your skin to harmful germs, resulting in dirty bacteria touching your face and possibly causing irritation or infection. Additionally, if the device’s pump is not properly cleaned, you could breathe in bacteria or mold.

Is there a link between CPAP machines and cancer?

There is not a link between using CPAP machines and an increased risk of cancer. In fact, some positive research suggests that CPAPs may be able to help suppress cancer-related genes15 .

There has, however, been some concern after CPAP machines from Philips16 were recalled. Researchers found that foam on the machine could break down and become toxic, possibly leading to cancer, so it was imperative that this item was recalled.

The risks of untreated sleep apnea can be just as lethal as cancer, but if you have concerns about CPAP devices, you should consult with your doctor.

Is obstructive sleep apnea linked to a higher risk of death than central sleep apnea?

No, obstructive sleep apnea isn’t linked to a higher risk of death than central sleep apnea. In fact, a 2022 study17 found that people with central sleep apnea have a higher mortality rate than those with obstructive sleep apnea.

Final Thoughts

Sleep apnea is a serious condition and can lead to complications as severe as death, so if you experience any symptoms related to sleep apnea, make sure you consult your primary care physician. They will likely refer you to take a sleep test, whether it be a polysomnography or an at-home sleep test.

If you do have sleep apnea, central or obstructive, there are ways to reduce your symptoms and keep you safe. Whether different treatments such as a CPAP device or a MAD work for you will depend on the severity of your sleep apnea and what symptoms you experience.


  1. “Sleep Apnea Symptoms and Causes”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified April 6, 2023.
  2. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed July 31, 2023.,is%20between%205%20and%2015.
  3. Doumit, Jimmy., Prasad, Bharati. “Sleep Apnea in Type 2 Diabetes”. American Diabetes Association. 2016.
  4. “What Is Metabolic Syndrome?”. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Last modified May 18, 2022.
  5. Castaneda, Alejandro., Jauregui-Maldonado, Edgar., et. al. “Correlation Between Metabolic Syndrome and Sleep Apnea”. World Journal of Diabetes. 2018.
  6. Gami, Apoor S., Olson, Eric J., et. al. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea and the Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death: A Longitudinal Study of 10,701 Adults”. National Library of Medicine. 2013.
  7. Sarver, Audra. “Can You Die From Sleep Apnea?”. Sleep Last modified January 18, 2023.
  8. “Sleep Apnea Diagnosis and Treatment”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified April 6, 2023.,oxygen%20levels%20while%20you%20sleep.
  9. “Polysomnography (sleep study)”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified February 17, 2023.
  10. “What to Know About an At-Home Sleep Test”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed July 31, 2023.
  11. “Choosing the Best Sleep Position”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed July 31, 2023.
  12. “CPAP machines: Tips for avoiding 10 common problems”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified October 27, 2021.
  13. “Oral Appliance Therapy for Obstructive Sleep Apnea”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified March 30, 2020.
  14. Goldman, Heidi. “Can Your CPAP Make You Sick?”. Harvard Health Publishing. 2019.
  15. Hunter, Elizabeth. “CPAP Use for Sleep Apnea Hushes Cancer-related Genes”. University of Washington School of Medicine. 2014.
  16. “UPDATE: Certain Philips Respironics Ventilators, BiPAP Machines, and CPAP Machines Recalled Due to Potential Health Risks: FDA Safety Communication”. United States Food and Drug Administration. 2021.
  17. Agrawal, Ritwick., Sharafkhaneh, Amir., et. al. “Mortality Patterns Associated with Central Sleep Apnea among Veterans: A Large, Retrospective, Longitudinal Report”. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 2022.

Jill Zwarensteyn is the editor for Sleep Advisor and a certified sleep science coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.

She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.

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