ZocdocAnswersI wake up gasping for air. Do I have sleep apnea?

Question

I wake up gasping for air. Do I have sleep apnea?

I am a 30 year old female. I am 5'1" and 90lbs. Most of the information I read about sleep apnea indicates that this condition affects overweight individuals, so I am unsure if this is what I have. I will occasionally wake up gasping for air and I feel like I have stopped breathing. What could cause this? I am currently taking paxil for depression, but I have taken other antidepressants and this does not impact the frequency or occurrence of the nighttime attacks.

Answer

In order to be able to answer this question well, I would definitely have to take a more in depth history from you which really isn't the point of this Q/A forum. What I can give you is some general information about obstructive sleep apnea, and hopefully point you in the right direction. You are correct in saying that in general obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disease that affects overweight people. However it is not exclusive to overweight people. To understand the pathology behind what is going on with OSA, I like to think of the airway as a tube. From the larynx (voice box) down to the lungs the tube is relatively rigid and mainly cartilaginous meaning that it does not typically collapse except in rare cases. The tube from your larynx to your lips however is a muscular tube, and the walls are not as rigid and resistant to collapse. Furthermore since the walls are made of muscle, and you lose muscle tone when you sleep, they become even more floppy and can collapse. The flapping of the upper airway soft tissues with inspiration is what causes snoring. When the upper airway completely obstructs, the air is cut off to the lungs, which decreases oxygen saturation in the blood, which your brain doesn't like and wakes you up. Once awake you regain muscle tone, the muscular tube opens, and you take some deep breaths. That is until you fall asleep again and lose muscle tone and restart the entire cycle. There is a more scientific definition about how many apneas you must have an hour, etc...but that is beyond this forum. The best way to determine if you have a sleep disorder like OSA is to get a polysomnogram (PSG), or sleep study. You primary care physician can order this, and if the results are abnormal I would recommend a consultation with an ENT (ears, nose and throat) physician, or a sleep medicine specialist. Even if the PSG is normal and your symptoms persist, I would recommend going to a sleep medicine specialist. Hope this helps.

This answer is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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