Can Untreated Sleep Apnea Kill You?

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
An illustration of a man and a woman wearing CPAP masks
© Zentangle / Getty Images

Stressed because of work? Have a fussy newborn? Couldn’t stop yourself from bingeing your favorite show in one night (again)? These are normal reasons to feel tired. While you may struggle to get through the next day, a little excessive sleepiness won’t kill you.  

However, if you’re consistently feeling sleepy despite doing everything right to get a full night of sleep, or if you’re experiencing other symptoms like headaches, memory problems or snoring so loud your partner opts to sleep on the couch, it might be a more serious condition like sleep apnea. 

What is sleep apnea? 

Sleep apnea is a condition that causes you to briefly stop breathing repeatedly during your sleep. It occurs when the muscles of the throat relax, causing the airway to collapse. Your blood oxygen level will then fall and your carbon dioxide levels will rise, which results in your sympathetic nervous system releasing hormones like adrenaline.  

These breathing pauses can occur 20 or more times per hour. Imagine someone disrupting your sleep 20 times each hour for every hour of the night (sorry, new parents) — this is a similar experience. 

There are three types of sleep apnea:  

  • Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when your upper airway becomes blocked over and over throughout your sleep. 
  • Central sleep apnea happens when your brain doesn’t send your body the signals it needs to breathe consistently. 
  • Complex sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea. 

It sounds scary — no one wants to stop breathing while asleep — but it occurs more frequently than you might think. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type, affecting at least 10% of adults worldwide. Men are twice as likely to have obstructive sleep apnea as women, but this difference disappears after menopause. 

The condition can be serious if left untreated, but luckily, there are plenty of ways to identify the condition. 

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea? 

If you have a bed partner, they will likely notice (and maybe complain about) your sleep apnea first if you’re loudly snoring throughout the night. They might also be alarmed when you intermittently stop breathing, a more definitive sign that you’re dealing with the condition. But what if you don’t have a bed partner to help point out what happens when you sleep? 

“If you experience disturbed sleep, don’t feel refreshed when you wake up or feel excessively sleepy during the day, these could be indicators that you might have sleep apnea,” says Dr. Nathaniel Watson, director of the UW Medicine Sleep Clinic at Harborview Medical Center. 

Other common symptoms include irritability or depression, forgetfulness and falling asleep several times throughout the day, Watson says. Sleep apnea also often causes high blood pressure. 

If you have immediate family members with a history of sleep apnea, or if you are overweight, smoke, are postmenopausal or have a thyroid disorder, you might be at a higher risk of developing sleep apnea. 

Even if your pet loves to take several midday naps with you, these symptoms shouldn’t be ignored.  

Wait, so can sleep apnea kill you? 

The short answer: It won’t directly lead to death. It’s extremely rare for someone with sleep apnea to stop breathing long enough to suffocate. However, sleep apnea could lead to some major health problems over the long term.  

“Severe, untreated obstructive sleep apnea is associated with increased mortality,” says Watson. 

Because sleep apnea interrupts your breathing patterns, it can reduce your body’s oxygen levels and increase your body’s amount of adrenaline, the stress hormone, which causes the increased blood pressure. When this happens too many times, it can damage blood vessels and cause other negative health impacts. 

“Sleep apnea can also cause an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic diseases like diabetes, motor vehicle accidents or an impaired immune system response,” says Watson. 

So, yes, the complications of sleep apnea can lead to death, but the use of preventive treatment methods can keep you healthy — and help you breathe through the night. 

How is sleep apnea diagnosed? 

Once you or your bed partner start to notice your symptoms, head to your doctor and let them know what you’re experiencing. Depending on your history, risk factors and symptoms, they may be able to quickly diagnose you. Many doctors will suggest an at-home test to confirm the diagnosis, which involves a device that you’d wear at bedtime. 

Your doctor might also refer you to a sleep specialist or suggest you undergo a sleep study to rule out any other sleep conditions that could be affecting your ability to rest at night. During the sleep study, a clinician will use sensors to record your oxygen level, heart rate, brain waves and breath patterns as you sleep. You’ll typically have to go to a hospital or a sleep center to do the test. 

Once your doctor gives you an official sleep apnea diagnosis, you can start the proper treatment. While there’s currently no permanent cure for the condition, the available treatment options are very effective. 

“Obstructive sleep apnea requires lifelong therapy, as it doesn’t resolve on its own,” says Watson. “Weight loss can improve sleep apnea but will rarely cure it.”  

How is sleep apnea treated? 

One of the most common ways to treat sleep apnea is to use a continuous positive airway pressure machine — aka a CPAP — and a mask. The machine helps to keep your airways open by providing a consistent airflow as you sleep. 

Some people treat their sleep apnea with a custom-fit mouthpiece that’s made by their dentist or orthodontist. The mouthpiece is another way to help keep your airways open. 

If a CPAP or a mouthpiece doesn’t help, your doctor might suggest additional treatment methods like other pressurized air machines that work similarly to a CPAP (like an adaptive servo-ventilation machine or a bilevel positive airway pressure machine), supplemental oxygen, medication or, in more severe or extreme cases, surgery to remove or repair problems that could be blocking your airway.  

In addition to these therapies, avoiding sedatives or alcohol at bedtime and staying at a healthy weight can also help prevent airway obstruction. 

If I have sleep apnea, should I be concerned? 

A sleep apnea diagnosis shouldn’t scare you, but don’t be passive about it. Thankfully, the condition is manageable with a little help. When you talk to your doctor, they can help you understand what to expect moving forward. 

Treating your sleep apnea not only will help you sleep through the night and feel better during the day, but can also help you live a long, healthy life — and bring peace and quiet to your nighttime.