Dangers of Sleep Apnea – Can Sleep Apnea Cause Death?

The dangers of sleep apnea are real. In fact. sleep apnea can be a dangerous –sometimes deadly — disorder, if not properly treated.

The most frightening dangers of sleep apnea:

Although rare, sleep apnea can cause an enlarged heart, stroke, and possibly death.

How can sleep apnea cause death? Death can result directly from apneic events or indirectly from health issues adversely affected by the sleep apnea. Death can also result from accidents that are due to exhaustion from sleep apnea.

Oxygen is needed for cells to survive. Oxygen enters the body by respiration. Respiration is both voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary respiration is when you consciously control your breathing. Involuntary respiration is when breathing is automatic. You can stop yourself from breathing, but only until you pass out — then your autonomic system takes over and tells the body to breathe. When sleeping, we automatically breathe.

Unfortunately, the steady automatic breathing, that most of find normal, is interrupted in the sleep apnea patient. It is this disruption of automatic breathing and the subsequent lack of oxygen that causes the dangers of sleep apnea. The moment of disruption, when no oxygen is being breathed in, is called an “apnea.”

What causes the apnea?

Sometimes the apnea is caused by a short circuit in the brain. The autonomic system isn’t being told to keep the body breathing.

Other times the apnea is caused by an obstruction of the tongue or collapse of the airway. If air doesn’t enter the lungs, oxygen cannot be extracted and after about 4 minutes cells will begin to die. If enough cells die, the body will not be able to compensate and it will result in death.

Stress on the heart, one of the dangers of sleep apnea

Hundreds of short breathing cessations each night harms the body. Oxygen saturation drops over and over again while carbon dioxide builds up. This puts stress on the heart.

The heart will enlarge over time if the sleep apnea is allowed to go on untreated. Blood vessels constrict causing high blood pressure. Sometimes it will also result in a stroke if too much pressure causes a vessel to burst. If the bleeding from the stroke cannot be controlled, it will also result in death.

Depression, another danger of sleep apnea

How else can sleep apnea cause death? Lack of sleep causes our bodies chemicals to become out of whack. People suffering from sleep apnea live continuously with off balance chemicals that never get a chance to regulate, therefore sleep deprived people often suffer from depression. This depression can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Impaired judgment and accidents

Impaired judgment and slow reaction times can cause accidental deaths from automobile crashes or falls. Sleepiness and inappropriately falling asleep has resulted in fires and accidental CO poisoning.

There have been athletes, actors, authors, and other famous people who have died due to sleep apnea. the most recent and well known is Reggie White, a NFL Hall-of-Famer who died at 43 years of age from an arrhythmia caused by sleep apnea.

So can sleep apnea cause death? Certainly. Can a person with sleep apnea prevent death? Definitely. Early diagnosis, proper treatment, and treatment compliance is crucial for avoiding the dangers of sleep apnea.


Johnny Castro February 7, 2011 at 5:18 am

At night I sleep for about three hours till iam woken up by constant urination extremely dry mouth and throuat. Then it’s hard for me to fall asleep again and I feel very restless all night and day

Lauren February 28, 2012 at 2:19 pm

I would recommend seeing a doctor regarding your condition. If sleep apnea is playing a role in your problems, it can be treated comfortably.

Debbie July 8, 2012 at 12:16 am

I have been diagnosed with sleep apnea & have been using a CPAP machine with oxygen for about 5 years now. I use the type of mask that covers mouth & has nasal pillows. I have NEVER become use to this machine & I fight to drift off to sleep every night. I ever start out with the mask & throw it off in middle of the night or get disgusted & don’t use it at all. I admit that on the rare night I am able to keep it on the entire night I do feel more rested & think clearer. But I just don’t seem able to get much sleep with mask on. My mask fits secure & is comfy. But I’m very aware it is on my face & trying to sleep is near impossible. I lost 50 lbs hoping I would no longer need it but I still suffer periods where I stop breathing. Frankly, I’d like to pitch my machines in the trash! I’m desperate, any suggestions on how I might fall a sleep WITH my mask & oxygen machines going? The CPAP is quiet but oxygen concentrator is quite loud. Thank you for your help, I appreciate any suggestions.

Jonni July 8, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Have you asked your doctor about this problem? It seems to be very common, but I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you. Maybe one of my other readers can help.

Lauren July 9, 2012 at 2:20 pm

There are other options for treatment of sleep apnea – depending on how severe. A common alternative to the CPAP mask/machine is an oral appliance (or mouthpiece). Certain dentists are specially trained to treat OSA with such a method and can make a CUSTOM FIT mouthpiece for you. A lot of people that won’t wear the CPAP find that the oral appliance is more portable and more comfortable. More information is available at the above website. I hope this information helps.

Adrian McNeil September 24, 2012 at 2:06 am

Hi Debbie
I admire your perseverance. You seem to be saying you have only used the one type of mask for five years. I was tempted to say, “just try a different sort of mask”, but it seems your mask is comfortable, it just bothers you when you are not alert enough to manage it. You must be a strong person to lose fifty pounds! I am not an expert but I used a nose mask around my nose for several years. To keep an effective seal at 12 cm pressure the mask pressed on the bridge of my nose and over a few days the skin would break down. I started to use a stiff plastic medical sticky tape (leukoplast) over the nose as a sort of second skin, which fixed that.

I lost weight but then put it on again and had to go back to CPAP. I now use a nasal pillow mask (Swift Fx) which is much less intrusive and less noticeable. One of the benefits of a nasal pillow mask is that it expands the nostrils with air pressure on the inside instead of pushing the nostrils closed with air pressure on the outside. So generally, the mask doesn’t need to be as tight.

For your particular case, you would need to have an oxygen pipe attachment, and I just don’t know if you can get that in a pillow-only mask. Does the oxygen still work okay if you move the concentrator further away or even behind a screen to reduce the noise?

Have you tried wearing the mask without the hoses, during the day as you walk around so that your face becomes accustomed to it? Maybe you can become sufficiently used to it that you can accept it subconsciously, (as well as you do consciously, when you first fit it and you say it is comfy.). The idea is to forget about it. Many masks allow you to read or watch TV as a distraction as you go to sleep.

I notice you use the word “disgusted”. Lots of people, often couples, do weird and disgusting things in bed and claim they are having fun. CPAP is quite hygienic, by comparison, so try not to allow negative thoughts about your therapy to put you off. Remember you are breathing in clarity of mind, strength, and alertness, and breathing out headaches and sleepiness, and your CPAP is your friend.

brian mattocks March 4, 2013 at 11:27 pm

I have sevear sleep apnea, 94 per hour I have, Ive gone through all the masks and none work for me, Ive had septoplasy in my nose made it worse, and my weights getting bigger and Im a t total vegatarian…..nothings worked and its getting worse even with a CPAP machine, sigh!

Lauren March 5, 2013 at 3:22 pm

I’m sorry to hear that you are having such a hard time with your sleep apnea. When your number is that high it can be difficult to bring it down to a healthier range. Some people use CPAP machines set to a high setting, while others who have severe OSA will wear a custom fit/adjusted mouthpiece (oral appliance) in addition to the mask at a lower setting. Those who simply cannot wear the mask at all, but are severe, still typically find improvement with the oral appliance – as opposed to doing nothing.

If you wanted to go the route of trying an oral appliance, look up a dentist in your area who has had training in sleep disorders. If you just want general information about that type of treatment, please browse our website at http://www.michiganheadandneck.com. Although you might not be in the area to become one of our patients, we can get you information so you can get help in your area with an alternative treatment than what you have tried so far.

If you would like some general information mailed to you, you can contact me at the email address on the website, and I can send you a booklet and DVD about the treatment so you at least know what all of your options are. (We will never send you junk mail)

brian mattocks March 5, 2013 at 10:08 pm

thank u for the advice…Ive tried the oral mask too…….I had a witness to see what happened when I wear eather and both wake me wen I stop breathing when the machine forces me to breath as it makes a huge WHOOOSHHHH sound, as it should. Like I say I think Ive tried EVERYTHING now…..and nothings working…….Im at my wits end! Ill try anything now if u think it will help…..whats on the DVD and booklet u have?

brian mattocks March 5, 2013 at 10:09 pm

AS FOR THE DENTAL APPLIENCE I was warned at a sleep apnea day that they can deform your jaw over long term use and may not even work in my case because I have several obstuctions! ARGHHHHHH!

Lauren March 6, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I’m so sorry to hear that, Brian. New research about sleep apnea comes out everyday. I sincerely hope you find a comfortable treatment at some point, as treatments improve and doctors learn more.

brian mattocks March 6, 2013 at 10:06 pm

so do I as I have no idea what to do next now…….I have booked an appointment in a private sleep clinic for a free consultation to see what they say, someone must know something to help my apnea’s?

Lauren March 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Best of luck to you. If you have multiple causes for your apnea, it may take a combination of methods to help you, such as a mouthpiece minimally advanced (so to lessen the possibility of affecting your jaw) and a C-PAP or Bi-PAP to supplement. I hope your appointment goes well, and you get some much needed answers.

brian mattocks March 7, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Rather more scary….I really think the only hope I have is that NASTY sounding operation where they remove some of ur soft pallet and tonsils…..YOWWWW! But I can’t see what else can work for me just now.

Jeff Hogan April 19, 2013 at 9:02 pm

After 45 yrs. of being treated for epilepsy,costing me most of my life. Spending 1st 2 yrs. telling Drs. I didn’t need the drugs,I was then addicted.Lying about more seizures to get more drugs,stealing barbiturates from family,and even getting a job to buy more,,,,it didn’t end there.It wasn’t until I had buried a dozen or so friends, either by wrecking a car full, or choking on their vomit, I then knew it wasn’t “me” wanting these drugs.They had me hooked,physically and mentally running my life.In 5 yrs.,I had cut back on all excess/illegal barbiturate drugs,8 more yrs. to bring my Rx level to less than 50% of that which they had me on.Now I am just about free from the last 1 or 2 pills.The Drs.?? don’t know and I don’t know that they’d want to hear it.But tell the world,it’s about getting oxygen,,,period! At night, while trying to sleep,many people are actually damaging coronary,respiratory,mental (seizure,for one), and many more.Bottom line, “If you’re not getting plenty of oxygen,something’s being damaged,maybe minor,maybe fatal(stroke/heart-attack.GET THESE “SMART” doctors together.Everyone should know if they’re receiving enough OXYGEN!!! It smells that easy,just sniff into it!! Coming back into ‘touch’ w/the world again will now be my journey. The sinus, sleep,brain,heart,lung boys should all get together onthis and see that the answer for life is healthy,’round the clock respiratory!!!Take care!

rob June 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm

I am 55. Have always been in ‘good’ heath and maintained healthy weight….as was my heart rate and blood pressure (115/72).
Over the past 10 years, and particularly over the last 5-6 years I recognized I was not getting quality sleep. I chalked it up to getting older…and maybe 3 hours or so a night was all I needed.
Over the last 18 months, and following the stress involved in dealing with the death of a family member…my life began to unravel. Even less sleep….major failure of mental/memory/cognative function levels……depression….diagnosed with enlarged ascending aorta and an unexplained high C-reactive protein level (5x normal).
In my frustration I had reached a point of rationalizing end of life as a viable solution.
By sheer coincidence….I was made aware of the fact when I was asleep I stopped breathing for long periods of time.
I have sleep apnea. Its no fun having to wear a cpap…but the alternative is entirely unacceptable.
Please…if you, or anyone in your life exhibits these kinds of difficulty…..they may not be ‘getting old’ or ‘going crazy’……tell them to get to a sleep disorder doctor ASAP!

Lauren June 7, 2013 at 6:15 pm

I agree, Rob. It is definitely an important condition which people should not ignore. It is especially easier to treat sleep apnea in present time, as there are so many non-surgical options like the various types of C-PAPs and Bi-PAPs, as well as simple mouthpieces. Thank you for sharing your story.

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