The Serious Complications of Severe Sleep Apnea

Severe sleep apnea is a serious form of sleep apnea characterized by very frequent periods of not breathing during sleep. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, or you snore during sleep, you might be at risk for severe sleep apnea.

In this blog post, we will define severe sleep apnea, list the potential complications, and explore options to help you manage it before it gets worse.

What is Severe Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is characterized by periods of not breathing during sleep. The word apnea means "to deprive of breath," so sleep apnea is the “deprivation of breath” during sleep. If you would like a full overview of sleep apnea, please visit this article about sleep apnea for more information. For this article, we will focus on how doctors and researchers grade sleep apnea for severity.

According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, one key measure of sleep apnea severity is the Apnea/Hypopnea Index (AHI). This index measures how many events of apnea you experience per hour during sleep. To grade the severity of sleep apnea, researchers use this scale:

  • None/Minimal: AHI < 5 per hour
  • Mild: AHI ≥ 5, but < 15 per hour
  • Moderate: AHI ≥ 15, but < 30 per hour
  • Severe: AHI ≥ 30 per hour

With this scale, we can see that having up to 15 apnea events per hour is still considered mild. Anything higher than 15 apnea events per hour is deemed to be moderate or severe.

To give some perspective, the bar for severe sleep apnea is not that high. One study made it a criterion to only include individuals who had an AHI score of more than 100. That means those individuals stopped breathing more than 100 times per hour, or several times a minute. At that level, quality sleep is nonexistent.

It is estimated that 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, with at least 80% of cases of moderate to severe sleep apnea going undiagnosed. Unless you have had a sleep study, the simple presence of snoring is not enough to know the severity of your sleep apnea. Moreover, it is also possible for mild sleep apnea to evolve into severe sleep apnea over time from various factors, so managing the disease with the appropriate treatment plan is critical to prevent a progression in the disease.

A recent 2017 meta-analysis discovered that severe sleep apnea could independently predict premature death for any cause, especially death caused by cardiovascular problems. What makes this research finding so egregious is the final message: any disease-related death can potentially be traced back to severe sleep apnea.

Finally, even the death of Carrie Fisher was later ruled to be “sleep apnea with other conditions: atherosclerotic heart disease and drug use” according to the American Sleep Apnea Association. It is not clear that she was being treated for sleep apnea, but she had the symptoms according to the article. Undiagnosed sleep apnea likely caused heart failure in her case.

The Complications of Severe Sleep Apnea

The complications of severe sleep apnea are generally the same as sleep apnea overall, but to a heightened degree:

Possible Complications of Severe Sleep Apnea

  • Heart failure
  • Attention and memory problems
  • Glaucoma
  • Periodontitis
  • Stroke
  • Premature death
  • Increased cancer risk
  • Unsafe medication interactions (narcotics, antidepressants, alcohol)
  • Sleep-deprived partners
  • Moodiness and irritability

While irritability might not seem like a big deal, sleep apnea can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. So to keep things in perspective, severe sleep apnea is a serious illness with many complications that increases your risk of premature death on several fronts.

What You Can Do to Get Help

If you suspect that you or someone you know might have sleep apnea, the first thing to do is request a sleep study from your doctor. To get appropriate treatment, you have to know how severe the problem is. A sleep study will give you a better picture into the severity of your sleep apnea and will help your doctor place you in a severity category.

Once you have the proper diagnosis, your doctor will most likely order a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine for you to use during sleep.

Here on our website, we have many resources to help you get started with your CPAP machine once your doctor prescribes one for you:

Final Thoughts

Severe sleep apnea is a serious form of sleep apnea that increases your risk of premature death in many ways. While it is essential to understand the complications and overall risks that go along with the disease, it is more important to focus on the treatment plan to avoid those risks. Fortunately, while the complications of severe sleep apnea are serious, getting a CPAP machine is an easy and extremely effective way to treat it.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For more information about sleep apnea, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.


About Ryan Anthony: Ryan Anthony, BS, RRT is a registered respiratory therapist and content writer and medical blogger currently located in Los Angeles, California. As a Respiratory Therapist, he performs a wide range of hospital duties including adult and neonatal intensive care, nitric oxide therapy, high-frequency oscillatory ventilation, conventional mechanical ventilation, noninvasive ventilation, BiPAP, CPAP, intubation assistance, bronchoscopy assistance, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, chest physiotherapy, and nebulizer therapy.

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