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Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) Symptoms, Causes & Risk Factors

What Are Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Different people have different symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, some mild and some more serious. Common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Snoring: Most people with obstructive sleep apnea snore (but not everyone who snores has obstructive sleep apnea).
  • Daytime sleepiness: If you have obstructive sleep apnea, you likely don't get high-quality sleep at night, which can make you sleepy during the day. You may doze off at work or even fall asleep behind the wheel.
  • Pauses in breathing: People with obstructive sleep apnea wake up suddenly after these breathing pauses, often gasping and choking. If you share a bed with someone, he or she may notice these noises.
  • Difficulties with memory and concentration
  • Unusual moodiness or irritability
  • Frequently waking up to urinate at night
  • Morning headaches
  • Dry mouth

What Causes Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the back of the throat (the pharynx) collapses while you're sleeping. The pharynx relies on muscles to stay open, but these muscles relax when you sleep. When the muscles relax, the pharynx collapses, which slows or stops air from entering and exiting your lungs. To unblock the pharynx, you wake briefly to "flex" the pharynx muscles and start breathing again. This cycle happens over and over throughout the night—often you don't even realize it is happening.

What Are Sleep Apnea Risk Factors?

  • Overweight/obesity: This is the most important risk factor, although people who aren't overweight can have obstructive sleep apnea. Obesity increases your risk for sleep apnea because fatty tissue in your breathing passage reduces the space for air to pass through. This makes it easier for your breathing passage to collapse while you sleep.
  • Gender: Men are two to three times more likely than premenopausal women to have obstructive sleep apnea. Postmenopausal women have a similar risk for obstructive sleep apnea as men.
  • Age: Adult obstructive sleep apnea becomes more frequent as you age, starting in young adulthood until the 60s and 70s. After this time, the risk of obstructive sleep apnea appears to level off.
  • Upper airway (pharynx) crowding: Anything that makes the pharynx smaller results in more obstructive sleep apnea. This includes having a big tongue or having a small chin. Those with big tonsils or glands in the pharynx, especially in children, also tend to be at higher risk for having obstructive sleep apnea.

When to See Your Doctor about Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea can interfere with your health, productivity, and sense of well-being. Here are some of the signs that you should make an appointment with your health-care provider:

  • Loud, disruptive snoring: Your snoring disrupts your sleep and/or your bed partner's sleep. Family members may complain that you snore too loudly.
  • Pauses in breathing: Your bed partner notices that you stop breathing in your sleep.
  • Daytime sleepiness: You have a hard time staying awake during the day, at work, or when you're driving.
  • Difficult to control medical problems: If you have a hard time controlling your asthma, blood pressure, or blood sugar, you might be suffering from obstructive sleep apnea.

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

    Last updated April 5, 2018.

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