Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur thirty times or more in an hour. You then resume breathing normally again, sometimes accompanied by a loud snort or choking sound. 

Sleep apnea is a chronic (on-going) condition that disrupts your sleep. When your breathing pauses or becomes shallow, you move out of deep sleep and into light sleep. This leads to poor quality sleep, which leaves you tired the next day. Sleep apnea is a leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. In this condition, the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. This causes shallow breathing or breathing pauses. When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people who are overweight, but it can affect anyone. 

Another type of sleep apnea is central sleep apnea, which is less common. This disorder occurs if the area of your brain that controls your breathing doesn't send the correct signals to your breathing muscles. As a result, you will make no effort to breathe for brief periods. Central sleep apnea can affect anyone. However, it's more common in people who have certain medical conditions or use certain medicines. Snoring typically does not happen with central sleep apnea. 

Complex sleep apnea syndrome or mixed sleep apnea occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.​​​

It can be tough to identify sleep apnea on your own, since the most prominent symptoms only occur when you’re asleep. However, you can always find out by asking your spouse or bed partner to observe your sleep habits, or by recording yourself during sleep.

One of the major signs and symptoms of sleep apnea are pauses while you snore, and choking or gasping after the pauses. Another common sign of sleep apnea is sleepiness during the day, at work, or while driving and problems breathing during sleep.

Other common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea are:​

  • Morning headaches

  • Memory or learning problems and not being able to concentrate

  • Feeling irritable, depressed, or having mood swings or personality changes

  • Waking up frequently to urinate

  • Dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up

Obstructive sleep apnea is a common problem in children, but it’s not always easy to recognize. In addition to loud snoring, children with sleep apnea sometimes adopt strange sleeping positions and suffer from bedwetting, excessive perspiration at night, or night terrors.

If you experience shortness of breath, gasping or choking that awakens you from sleep, or if your partner notices that you snore very loudly with pauses in between, seek help from your doctor at the Mind and Brain Service Line at The Aga Khan University Hospital. If left untreated, sleep apnea can:

  • Increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes

  • Increase the risk of heart failure

  • Increase risk of arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)

  • Increase the chance of having work-related or driving accidents


Your time with your doctor may be limited, so make sure to prepare for your visit beforehand. Here are some tips to help get you started.​

Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed. Doctors usually cannot detect the condition during routine office visits. Also, no blood test can help diagnose the condition. You won’t usually notice that you have sleep apnea because it only occurs during sleep. A family member or partner might be the first to notice signs of sleep apnea.

If you have symptoms of sleep apnea, your doctor may ask you to undergo a sleep apnea test, called polysomnography. Polysomnography electronically transmits and records specific physical activities while you sleep with various electrodes placed on the head, nostrils, chest, abdomen and limbs. These are painless. The recordings are analysed by a qualified sleep specialist to determine whether or not you have sleep apnea or another type of sleep disorder. If sleep apnea is determined, you may be asked to do further sleep testing in order to determine the best treatment option.

In some cases, your doctor may provide you with a simple test to be used at home to diagnose sleep apnea. This test involves measuring your heart rate, blood oxygen level, airflow and breathing patterns. If you have sleep apnea, the test results will show drops in your oxygen level during apneas and subsequent rises with awakenings.

For treatment of sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes such as:

  • Losing weight

  • Avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills

  • Changing sleep positions to improve breathing

  • Stopping smoking

  • Avoiding sleeping on your back

Another treatment option is a device called continuous positive airway pressure (or CPAP) in which a mask is worn over the nose and/or mouth while you sleep. The mask is hooked up to a machine that delivers a continuous flow of air into the nose. This air flow helps keep the airways open so that breathing is regular. 

At times, your medical specialist may prescribe medications having respiratory stimulant properties or antidepressants if there may be the need.

Sometimes your doctor may recommend surgery to correct enlarged tonsils, nasal problems or repositioning of the jaw. Another option is to receive oxygen while you sleep via a supplemental oxygen device. Talk with your doctor at The Aga Khan University Hospital about any treatment before you try it to find out how useful it might be.​


The Aga Khan University Hospital offers various support services to help with managing or recovering from the disease or condition. These include but are not limited to nutrition, physiotherapy, rehabilitation, specialized clinics and some patient support groups. Your doctor or nurse will advise you accordingly.

The Aga Khan University Hospital offers financial assistance to those who are in need and fulfil the eligibility criteria. For further information, you can contact the Patient Welfare Department. You can find the contact number of the Patient Welfare Department in the ‘Important Numbers’ section on the website homepage.​

The financial counselling staff is available during office hours, at the main PBSD (Patient Business Services Department), to answer your financial queries on treatments’ costs and authorize admissions on partial deposit as per hospital policies allow. The financial counsellor in the emergency room is open 24/7. You can find the contact number of the Patient Business Services in the ‘Important Numbers’ section on the website homepage.​

Your doctor and or nurse will give you specific instructions about the prescribed medication. Please ensure that you take or use the prescribed medicine as advised. It can be dangerous to your health if you self-prescribe. Please inform the doctor or nurse beforehand if you have experienced any adverse reactions to any medications in the past. If you experience any symptoms of drug poisoning, overdose or severe reaction please contact the Pharmacy Service at The Aga Khan University Hospital immediately. You can find the contact number of the Pharmacy Services in the ‘Important Numbers’ section on the website homepage.​



The information provided on our website is for educational purposes and not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or other healthcare professional provider.