Sleep apnea itself isn't life threatening or dangerous, but if it's not treated, it can have some serious effects over time. You might not discover or suspect that you have sleep apnea for a long time, with the complications already taking effect. Sleep apnea is caused by the muscles in your throat relaxing too much and closing, preventing air from entering your lungs – this is know as obstructive sleep apnea.
Another type of sleep apnea is known as central sleep apnea and makes up only about 5% of sleep apnea cases. Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain doesn't signal your airways to open and close properly while you are sleeping. Heart failure and stroke can disrupt the part of your brain that controls this function. If you are visiting high altitudes and are sensitive to changes in air pressure, central sleep apnea can occur if you have previous never had it before.
If you have had untreated sleep apnea, it can cause high blood pressure and lead to heart failure. If you don't get enough oxygen into your bloodstream over time, it will cause your heart to overwork itself, thus causing heart failure or coronary heart disease. This can then lead to heart attacks or strokes.
If you aren't getting enough oxygen to your brain (which requires about 20% of the oxygen you take in), it will cause a difficulty rationalizing and focusing. If you can't think things through clearly, this can lead to depression and other problems like dementia.
Sleep apnea can cause glaucoma and optic nerve swelling, research shows. The good news is, if these problems are caused by sleep apnea, once the sleep apnea is treated, the eye problems will be relieved as well.
How do I know if I have sleep apnea?
Most people who have it found out because they got suspicious about how they felt during the day. If you wake up most mornings feeling excessively tired, like you barely slept last night at all, even though you got around 8 hours, you might be feeling the effects of sleep apnea. If this goes on for more than two weeks at a time and you can think of no other reason that you should be so tired all the time, you should look into the possibility of sleep apnea.
You can wake up feeling tired because you were unable to get enough oxygen throughout the night. Another reason is you are being disturbed by your gasping for breath during the night and are unable to get into the deep stages of sleep. You need to be able to fall into the deep stages, which happen more than once during the night, to feel refreshed.
If you are suspicious that you have sleep apnea, have someone observe you while you sleep, or use a camera to record you during the night. If you or your friend can see that you stop breathing throughout the night and are gasping for breath, then you need to see your doctor to see what can be done.
If your case is moderate to severe, you will mostly likely be prescribed the use of a CPAP machine (for obstructive sleep apnea) or a BiPAP machine (for central sleep apnea). A CPAP machine provides a constant flow of oxygen while sleeping, while the BiPAP machine has two levels that automatically switch out as it's working. Your doctor will set a prescribed air flow on your machine, and instruct you on its use.