13 Signs Your Sleep Apnea Could Be Killing You

Sleep apnea is dangerous to your health when left untreated. Michael J. Breus, PhD, aka The Sleep Doctor, shares the negative effects of undiagnosed sleep apnea.

sick woman on bed concept of stomachache, headache, hangover, sleeplessness or insomnia

OSA: more than snoring

How much do you know about the signs of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)? Most people know the hallmark symptom of OSA: loud snoring, often combined with gasping and choking during sleep. (Check out these other sleep disorders you should know about.)

OSA is a form of sleep-disordered breathing that, when left untreated, leads to increase risks for serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes. But the signs—and negative health effects—of OSA go well beyond snoring.

stressed young businessman sitting outside corporate office working on laptop computer holding head with hands looking down. Negative human emotion facial expression feelings.


Headaches, especially in the morning, are a common symptom. OSA leads to diminished oxygen levels in the blood and to the brain—one reason scientists think this condition causes headaches. For women, OSA is more common than many people realize. And women’s symptoms aren’t always the same as men’s. Women may be less likely to snore very loudly, and more likely to experience mood problems and headaches. Read about these remedies for headache pain.

Tired sleepy woman yawning, working at office desk and holding credit card, overwork and sleep deprivation concept

Daytime fatigue

OSA interrupts normal breathing. It also interrupts sleep. Difficulty breathing and episodes of apnea—when breathing temporarily stops—cause awakenings that pull you out of sound sleep, again and again over the course of a night. You might not remember these awakenings, but you’ll feel it in excessive tiredness and fatigue that you just can’t shake, and that interferes with your performance and your quality of life.

business, people, deadline and technology concept - businessman with laptop computer thinking at office
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Poor attention span

Feeling distracted a lot? Diminished concentration is one of the lesser known sleep apnea symptoms. Difficulty paying attention can have consequences that go well beyond neglecting a task at work or overlooking a friend’s birthday. People with OSA are at significantly higher risk for motor vehicle accidents, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Sleep. Read about superfoods that help you focus.

Attractive blonde mature female writer sitting at desk at home placing chin on her hands and looking away with thoughtful or unhappy expression while experiencing writer's block and creative slowdown

Poor memory

It’s not only concentration that takes a dive because of OSA—memory also can suffer. In particular, verbal and visuospatial memory are affected by OSA. What do changes to verbal and visuospatial memory look like? You catch yourself struggling more often to come up with a word, or you can’t remember the driving route to the new lunch place you discovered. Left untreated, OSA is also linked to Alzheimer’s disease. A 2017 study shows this form of sleep-disordered breathing leads to build up of plaque in the brain that’s a marker for the disease. Here are some everyday habits you can adopt to boost your memory.

Close up of little girl hands piano playing
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Poor motor skills

Sleep is important to motor skill learning. Research shows OSA interferes with your ability to acquire and retain motor skills. Typically, a good night’s sleep enhances new motor skills. A 2014 study showed people with OSA did not experience the improvement of motor skills that healthy sleepers did. This sign of OSA might show itself most obviously if you’re learning a new skill—playing the piano or knitting a scarf—and find it difficult or challenging. But people with OSA may also notice negative changes to their coordination. OSA also increases risks for accidents, both minor and serious. Get some relief with these 10 home remedies for sleep apnea.

Close up view of female medicine doctor measuring blood pressure to her patient. Hands close up. Healthcare, healthy lifestyle and medical service concept

High blood pressure

If your blood pressure has ticked up to unhealthy levels, it could be a sign of sleep apnea. One in five adults suffers from at least a mild form of OSA, according to the American Heart Association. The link between high blood pressure and OSA is strong, and hypertension elevates your risk for heart disease and stroke. The good news is that treating OSA can bring blood pressure down, and lower your risks for cardiovascular disease. The most common—and effective—treatment for OSA is CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure. CPAP is a device that’s worn during sleep and provides a gentle, constant stream of air that keeps your airway unobstructed. Learn the steps you can take to avoid high blood pressure.

Electrocardiogram, ecg in hand, palm of a doctor. Medical health care. Clinic cardiology heart rhythm and pulse test closeup. Cardiogram printout.

Irregular heartbeat

The presence of a rapid or irregular heartbeat is an understandably frightening experience. Noticeable changes to heartbeat should not be ignored, and are a symptom to address promptly with your doctor. Arrhythmias can be caused by several factors, including low thyroid, anxiety, and dehydration, and OSA. Recent research shows people with OSA are at higher risk for atrial fibrillation, the most common form of arrhythmia. Check out these diets that cardiologists follow to keep their heart healthy.

Close-up Of Doctor's Hands doing a blood test with a glucometer on the finger of a diabetes person.Close up shot with selective focus.

High blood sugar

Also known as hyperglycemia, high blood sugar is a sign the body isn’t effectively moving glucose from its bloodstream to its cells. A rise in blood sugar levels (measured in a blood test performed by a doctor) is one of the lesser-known symptoms of sleep apnea. Research has identified a link between elevated blood sugar and OSA in people without diabetes. High blood sugar is also a key sign of pre-diabetes and diabetes and can cause complications to the cardiovascular system, kidneys, and eyes. Treating OSA can help you avoid high blood sugar and its health risks. Here are 12 ways you can keep your blood sugar steady.

Girl shows holding and pushing the skin of the belly cellulite
supawat bursuk/Shutterstock

Weight gain

Being overweight puts you at greater risk of developing OSA—and untreated OSA can also cause you to pack on additional pounds. Losing weight is one of the first and best strategies for improving all forms of sleep-disordered breathing. If you notice weight gain, especially in combination with other sleep apnea symptoms, ask your doctor about testing. Check out these smart ways to kick-start weight loss.

Woman waiting for doctor in hospital
Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock

Metabolic syndrome

What’s metabolic syndrome? It’s a condition in which a cluster of unhealthful symptoms occur together: high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, and excess fat in the abdomen. Metabolic syndrome carries significantly increased risks for both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. While research shows a strong relationship between OSA and metabolic syndrome, scientists are still trying to understand what that relationship is—including which condition may cause the other. A conversation with your doctor about metabolic syndrome (and metabolic health in general) should include discussion of OSA and the quality of your sleep. Learn about the habits that might be slowing down your metabolism.

Messy bed in hotel. Image made black and white tone

Sexual dysfunction

Many of my patients are surprised to learn that one of the signs of sleep apnea is sexual problems. It’s true for both men and women: OSA can interfere with both sexual satisfaction and desire. In men, this often includes erectile dysfunction. In women, OSA may create a loss of libido. Why? It appears to negatively affect levels of testosterone and other sex hormones. Treating OSA with CPAP or other therapies, including mouth devices worn during sleep, can improve your sex life. Check out these other surprising obstacles to a healthy sex life.

Pensive depressed young woman sitting and thinking on bed in the morning
Dean Drobot/Shutterstock


This is another sign of OSA that surprises people. The relationship between sleep and mood is complicated. Poor sleep causes mood problems, and low mood can interfere with sleep. Researchers have identified OSA as a contributor to depression. One recent study showed more than 46 percent of people with OSA had depressive symptoms. Depression may be a more common OSA symptom in women than in men. Know the silent signs of depression that mean it’s time to seek help.

Young business man sitting in depression with hand on head
Tyler Olson/Shutterstock


The breathing interruptions and awakenings of OSA can make it all but impossible to get a good night’s sleep. Poor sleep quality and not getting enough sleep both significantly raise your risk for anxiety. (And anxiety can make it much more difficult to sleep well.) Research indicates that more than 50 percent of people with OSA also have anxiety. Learn to spot the signs of high-functioning anxiety.

male hand holding CPAP mask, connecting with strap and hose, above his bed, wellness and respiratory
Chalermpon Poungpeth/Shutterstock

Treat your snoring

Not everyone who snores has OSA. Roughly half of routine snorers suffer from the more serious form of sleep-disordered breathing. Don’t wait for a snoring issue to create additional health problems to treat it. Lifestyle changes—losing weight, limiting alcohol consumption—can help. So can internal and external nasal dilators—Theravent and Mute are two good ones. Mouth guards can also reduce snoring and normalize breathing during sleep—I recommend Zyppah. If you snore regularly or loudly, bring this issue to your doctor and rule out OSA before you use these snoring treatments. Here are some simple home remedies for snoring.

Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and both a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. He was one of the youngest people to have passed the Board at age 31 and, with a specialty in Sleep Disorders, is one of only 168 psychologists in the world with his credentials and distinction. Dr. Breus is on the clinical advisory board of The Dr. Oz Show and is a regular contributor on the show (35+ times). Dr. Breus is the author of the new book The Power of When, (September 2016) his third book ( #1 at Amazon for Time Management and #1 in Happiness, #28 overall) which is a ground breaking bio-hacking book proving that there is a perfect time to do everything, based on your hidden biological chronotype. Dr. Breus gives the reader the exact perfect time to have sex, run, a mile, eat a cheeseburger, ask your boss for a raise and much more. His second book The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep (Rodale Books; May 2011), discusses the science and relationship between quality sleep and metabolism. His first book, GOOD NIGHT: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-WeekProgram to Better Sleep and Better Health (Dutton/Penguin), an Amazon Top 100 Best Seller, has been met with rave reviews and continues to change the lives of readers. Dr. Breus has supplied his expertise with both consulting and as a sleep educator (spokesperson) to brands such as Princess Cruise lines, Six Senses Hotel and Spa, Lighting Science Group, Advil PM, Breathe Rite, Crowne Plaza Hotels, Dong Energy (Denmark), Merck (Belsomra), and many more. For over 14 years Dr. Breus has served as the Sleep Expert for WebMD. Dr. Breus also writes The Insomnia Blog and can be found regularly on, The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Sharecare, and The Oz Blog. Dr. Breus has provided editorial services for numerous medical and psychology peer-reviewed journals and has given hundreds of presentations to professionals and the general public. He has published original research and worked on grant funded projects and clinical trials. Among his numerous national media appearances, Dr. Breus has been interviewed on CNN, Oprah, The View, Anderson Cooper, Rachel Ray, Fox and Friends, The Doctors, Joy Behar, The CBS Early Show, The Today Show, and Kelly and Michael. He is an expert resource for most major publications doing more than 100 interviews per year (WSJ, NYT, Wash Post, and most popular magazines). He also appears regularly on Dr. OZ and Sirius XM Radio. Dr. Breus has been in private practice for 16 years and recently relocated his practice to Los Angles. And can be reached on the web at www.thesleepdoctor.com