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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). However, some people may experience both forms, and this is categorized as complex sleep apnea.1

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.

Types of Sleep Apnea

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 tissues relax and therefore, block airflow into your lungs, which stops your breathing.  Conversely, if you experience central sleep apnea, your brain isn’t sending the right signals to your muscles that control your breathing.1

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

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 overlap.1 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 slowed breathing and reductions in oxygen, while apnea periods occur when there is a full stop in breathing.2 

You experience mild obstructive sleep apnea if you have between five and 14 periods of hypopnea or apnea every hour. 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 sleep.2

Interested in learning more? Check out our complete guide to sleep apnea.

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.

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 problems. 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 system. Furthermore, sleep apnea increases your chance of getting a heart attack, stroke, or abnormal heartbeats.1

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 . Along with sleep apnea, advanced age and obesity are some other risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes.

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 circumference.4

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 surgery.1

Liver Problems

Those with sleep apnea are more vulnerable to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease6 (NAFLD). According to research experts, OSA is linked to hypoxia (low oxygen tissue levels), insulin resistance, and glucose intolerance, which are also factors in obesity and metabolic syndrome. While insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, and obesity are linked to NAFLD, they add that hypoxia might also be a factor in the development of NAFLD.6

How Does Sleep Apnea Kill You?

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 study7 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.

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

According to the Mayo Clinic8, 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 levels while you sleep.8 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.

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 apnea.1

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 bed 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 mask covering your nose and mouth, delivering a constant, steady supply of compressed air.

MAD – Mandibular Advancement Device

A mandibular advancement device12 (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 apnea.12 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 stimulation. 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 breathe.8

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 device13 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. There has, however, been some concern after CPAP machines from Philips14 were recalled. Researchers found that foam on the machine could break down and become toxic, 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 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 study15 found that people with central sleep apnea have a higher mortality rate than those with obstructive sleep apnea.

Our 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. Lastly, explore the best mattresses for sleep apnea.

Jill Zwarensteyn

Jill Zwarensteyn


About Author

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.

Combination Sleeper


  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. 
  3. Doumit, Jimmy., Prasad, Bharati. “Sleep Apnea in Type 2 Diabetes”. Diabetes Spectrum. 2016.
  4. “What Is Metabolic Syndrome?”. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Last modified May 18, 2022. 
  5. Castaneda, Alejandro., et al. “Correlation Between Metabolic Syndrome and Sleep Apnea”. World Journal of Diabetes. 2018.
  6. Ahmed, Mohamed H., Byrne, Christopher D. “Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome and fatty liver: Association or causal link?”. World of Gastroenterology. 2010.
  7. Gami, Apoor S., et al. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea and the Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death: A Longitudinal Study of 10,701 Adults”. National Library of Medicine. 2013.
  8. “Sleep Apnea: Diagnosis and Treatment”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified April 6, 2023. 
  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. “Oral Appliance Therapy for Obstructive Sleep Apnea”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified March 30, 2020. 
  13. Goldman, Heidi. “Can Your CPAP Make You Sick?”. Harvard Health Publishing. 2019.
  14. “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.
  15. Agrawal, Ritwick., 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.