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Common Factors That Make Sleep Apnea Symptoms Worse

Man suffering from sleep apnea or stress

Did you know that more than 22 million people in the United States are afflicted with sleep apnea, and a shocking 80 percent of moderate to severe cases go undetected? These figures are quite alarming, but knowledge and understanding of the disorder can help reduce its impact.

Exploring what causes sleep apnea to get worse gives us more protection against this common disease. 

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a chronic and potentially serious sleep disorder in which a person’s breathing is disrupted during sleep. This disruption occurs in episodes, sometimes hundreds of times in a night, and it can last for a few seconds to minutes, often leading to a drop in oxygen levels.

Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound. Not only does sleep apnea disrupt sleep, leading to daytime sleepiness and fatigue, but it also raises the risk for more grave health complications, like heart disease, if left untreated.

What Are the Various Types of Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), the most common form of sleep apnea, results from blocked airflow during sleep. The blockage occurs when the throat muscles, including the tongue, as well as fat deposits, relax excessively, hindering the flow of air. The typical symptoms are loud snoring, gasping, and choking for air as breathing pauses, hence interrupted sleep.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) is a type of sleep apnea in which the brain fails to send signals to the muscles in charge of controlling breathing during sleep. This results in intermittent pauses in breathing despite an open airway. Unlike obstructive sleep apnea (the common type), in CSA, there isn’t any physical blockage in the airway.

What Makes Sleep Apnea Worse?

Excess Weight

One of the things that make sleep apnea worse is excess weight, particularly around the neck area. Gaining excess weight can lead to the development and progression of sleep apnea as fat deposits around your upper airway obstruct your breathing. Overweight people have four times the risk of sleep apnea.

For people with sleep apnea, weight loss is often recommended as part of the treatment options. The more obesity, the higher the risk of having a severe form of the disorder, indicating a relationship between medical conditions like obesity and sleep apnea.

Muscle Relaxants

Certain medications, such as those used for sleep or anxiety, can cause the muscles in your throat to relax more than normal. This can worsen symptoms of sleep apnea. Such medications affect the upper airway’s control, which is done by these muscles, leading to complications in proper breathing and more episodes of apnea. For patients with mild sleep apnea, oral appliance therapy, where oral appliances are used, can be recommended as treatment for sleep apnea.

Alcohol Consumption

Those with sleep apnea need to be mindful of drinking alcohol, as this can also relaxes the throat muscles. It disrupts the natural rhythm of sleep that can lead to an increased risk of lengthier and frequent breathing disturbances during sleep. Alcohol has a sedative effect that delays the brain’s response to a drop in oxygen level, making apneic episodes more severe. That’s why people with sleep apnea should be aware of this risk.

Nasal Congestion

Chronic nasal congestion can also increase the risk of sleep apnea. Swollen nasal passages obstruct the flow of air, making breathing difficult during sleep. It doubles the risk of developing sleep apnea. Using nasal decongestants or allergy medications may provide relief, especially under the advice of a healthcare provider.


High-stress levels can also worsen sleep apnea symptoms. As previously noted, can stress make sleep apnea worse? Yes, stress increases arousal levels and disrupts sleep patterns, making it challenging for those with sleep apnea to fall and stay asleep.

Conditions such as congestive heart failure can also increase emotional stress levels, further complicating sleep issues. Hence, treatment options should include methods of stress reduction.


Do allergies make sleep apnea worse? The answer is yes. Chronic nasal congestion, often linked to allergies, can increase the risk of sleep apnea. Swollen nasal passages obstruct the flow of air, making breathing difficult during sleep. Indeed, chronic nasal congestion doubles the risk of developing sleep apnea.

What Are the Common Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea?

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Therapy

This is the most common treatment option for patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea, a condition that can cause variations in heart rate and poor sleep and even lead to health conditions like high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation if left untreated. A CPAP machine delivers air pressure through a mask placed over your nose while you sleep.

This air pressure is instrumental in keeping your upper airway passages open, preventing apnea episodes and associated drops in blood oxygen levels. It also decreases the risk of making the condition worse.

Bi-Level Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP or BPAP)

This device is suited for those unable to adapt to CPAP. BPAP devices feature two pressure settings—a higher one for inhalation and a lower one for exhalation—making it easier for some to breathe out against the incoming air. Like CPAP, this meets the goal of maintaining steady air pressure and minimizing sleep disruption, which can worsen the condition if not managed properly.

Oral Appliances

These are designed for those experiencing mild to moderate sleep apnea. These custom-fitted devices help keep the throat open, minimizing sleep disruption and reducing risk factors such as a sore throat. They assist in repositioning the jaw and tongue, providing an open, unobstructed airway.

Oral appliances can be an efficient alternative for patients who can’t tolerate or haven’t been helped by the air pressure provided by a CPAP machine.

Positional Therapy

If sleep studies show your sleep apnea worsens when you lie on your back, positional therapy may be beneficial. It involves adjustments to ensure you avoid sleeping in this position, reducing the occurrence of apnea.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes can often significantly improve symptoms of sleep apnea. These can include losing weight if you’re overweight, preventing weight gain, ceasing smoking, limiting alcohol and sedative use, or modifying your sleep routine. These changes can help control blood pressure levels, reduce sleep disruption, and improve overall health outcomes for patients with sleep apnea.


If other treatment options fail or do not treat sleep apnea, surgery is the last option. Minimally invasive procedures to more complex ones like nasal surgery, throat surgery, oral surgery, or even weight loss surgery are used to eliminate or reduce the extra tissues in your throat. This reduction prevents the tissues from collapsing and blocking the airway, leading to sleep disruption and drops in blood oxygen levels during sleep.

Hypoglossal Nerve Stimulation

This relatively new treatment is great for certain cases of sleep apnea. It involves surgically implanting a stimulator for the nerve that controls tongue movement. The stimulator helps maintain an open airway during sleep, thus reducing sleep disruption and improving blood oxygen levels.

Take the First Step to Better Sleep: Schedule Your Sleep Apnea Assessment Today

Ignoring the common symptoms that make sleep apnea worse doesn’t just rob you of a good night’s sleep but can lead to potentially severe health problems. Thankfully, understanding the risk factors, staying in tune with your body and seeking help from sleep doctors at the earliest warning signs can render this condition manageable and lessen risks of heart disease, heart attack, etc.

If you or a loved one are experiencing signs of sleep apnea, seeking guidance from a sleep specialist or healthcare provider is essential. Contact Miller’s Family Dentistry today for personalized care and comprehensive treatment plans tailored to your needs. Don’t let sleep apnea impact your health and well-being—take proactive steps towards better sleep and overall wellness.

Dr. Ron Miller - Miller's Family Dentistry

About Dr. Ron Miller

I’m proud to be following in my family’s footsteps when it comes to providing families with quality healthcare. Dentistry has changed so much since my father opened this office more than 50 years ago. I take pride in bringing you the benefits of the latest advances for gentler, more effective care. But one thing hasn’t changed: We still offer the personalized care that makes every patient feel special.

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