A man with sleep apnea smoking a cigarette at a bar.

Factors That Can Make Sleep Apnea Worse

If you suffer from sleep apnea, you know how disruptive and dangerous this condition can be. Sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing periodically throughout the night, preventing you from getting restful sleep and leaving you exhausted the next day.

While there are treatments available, there are also several factors that can exacerbate sleep apnea and make your symptoms worse. Being aware of these factors is key to managing your condition.

Obesity and Weight Gain

A woman is measuring a man's waist with a tape to check for the possibility of sleep apnea.

One of the most significant risk factors for developing sleep apnea in the first place is obesity. Carrying excess weight, especially around the neck and throat region, increases the chances of your airway becoming blocked while sleeping. Even modest amounts of weight gain can worsen obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the most common form of sleep apnea.

Why does extra weight make sleep apnea worse?

Excess fat deposits around the neck squeeze the internal diameter of the throat. All that added tissue obstructs airflow and makes apneic events more likely. If you already have sleep apnea, any additional weight gain will intensify the condition. Shedding even 4-7 kilos (10 to 15 pounds) can lead to noticeable improvements in sleep apnea severity. For long-term management, maintaining a healthy body weight is very important.

Alcohol Consumption

Drinking alcohol is another habit that can exacerbate sleep apnea. Alcohol is a muscle relaxant, meaning it causes the muscles in the back of your throat to become overly relaxed. This makes them more likely to collapse and obstruct your airway during sleep. Consuming alcohol close to bedtime is especially problematic since it remains in your system as you fall asleep, relaxing those throat muscles right when you need them to stay open.

Studies show that consuming just two alcoholic drinks at night results in significantly more sleep apnea events compared to nights without alcohol. The more you drink, the worse it gets. Avoid drinking anything alcoholic within three hours of bedtime to prevent increased sleep disruptions.

Your Sleeping Position Matters

A woman experiencing sleep apnea, laying in bed with her eyes closed.

Believe it or not, the position you sleep in can also worsen apnea. When you sleep on your back, gravity causes your throat tissues and tongue to shift backwards. This narrows your airway and predisposes you to apneic events during the night.

Sleeping on your side is better because tissue and tongue displacement is reduced, keeping your airway more open. If you have mild sleep apnea, simply training yourself to sleep on your side can help lessen its impact. Use pillows or other aids to maintain a side-sleeping position. Severe apnea usually requires more intensive treatment, but adjusting sleep position can still help reduce frequency of events.

Medications That Relax Muscles

There are several types of prescription medications that can worsen sleep apnea by relaxing the muscles of your throat and airway.

These include:

  • Muscle relaxants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Opioid painkillers
  • Sleeping pills

Any drug with a sedative or relaxing effect can potentially intensify apnea. This side effect is especially common with opioid pain medications, which are known respiratory depressants. Let your doctor know if you have sleep apnea before being prescribed any new medication. Lower doses or alternative options may be recommended to minimize risks.

Also avoid taking any unnecessary medicines before bed when they could impact your breathing at night.

Aging Can Make Sleep Apnea Worse

A woman with sleep apnea sitting on a couch with a doctor looking at a tablet.

As we get older, muscle tone naturally decreases everywhere in the body, including the throat. This age-related loss of tone in the upper airway makes apneic events more likely for adults over 50 years old. Aging also impacts sleep patterns, meaning older adults spend less time in deep, restorative stages of sleep.

While aging itself cannot be reversed, there are steps older adults can take to minimize its effects on sleep apnea:

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule and get 7-8 hours nightly
  • Exercise regularly to preserve muscle strength
  • Consult your doctor about adjusting any current medications
  • Consider a sleep study if snoring or apnea symptoms appear

Pre-Existing Medical Conditions

Underlying health issues like diabetes, hypertension, and hypothyroidism can all intensify sleep apnea. These conditions damage nerves that innervate the upper airway, weakening the muscles that keep it open. Treating the underlying disease process can potentially improve sleep apnea severity.

On the flip side, uncontrolled sleep apnea also exacerbates many medical conditions due to hypoxemia (low oxygen levels) and sleep deprivation. This vicious cycle makes the co-existing diseases and apnea worsen together over time. Seeking effective sleep apnea treatment helps break this cycle and improves symptoms of any pre-existing illnesses.

Smoking and Vaping

Like alcohol consumption, smoking (including vaping and e-cigarettes) is another avoidable risk factor that intensifies sleep apnea. Smoke exposure irritates the throat tissues, leading to inflammation and swelling that narrows the airway.

Chemicals in smoke also paralyze and damage the cilia, which are tiny hair-like projections that sweep mucus and debris out of air passages. This results in a buildup of secretions that can further block airflow.

Quitting smoking and avoiding all tobacco products can make a huge difference in sleep apnea severity. Even just cutting back on use is beneficial. Along with other lifestyle changes, smoking cessation helps open up obstructed airways for better nighttime breathing.

Inconsistent CPAP Use

CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy is the most effective treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea, helping millions rest easier. However, inconsistent use can render this therapy ineffective and even worsen your condition over time. Here’s how:

  • Missing CPAP sessions means you lose its apnea-preventing benefits for that night.
  • Repeated inadequate therapy leads to chronic fatigue and exacerbates health risks.
  • Stopping CPAP suddenly causes a rebound effect, increasing apnea severity.
  • Apnea worsens without CPAP, making it harder to resume therapy.

To gain the full benefits of CPAP, it is absolutely vital to use it nightly for all sleep hours as prescribed by your physician. Report any mask discomfort or other issues hindering compliance so adjustments can be made. With consistent use, CPAP will help you sleep better and minimize apnea symptoms.

The Bottom Line

While sleep apnea treatment is available, there are still many factors within your control that can worsen this disruptive condition. Avoid weight gain, alcohol consumption, sleep positioning that blocks air flow, unnecessary medications, and smoking. Seek treatment for any underlying medical issues, and use CPAP therapy as directed. Making these lifestyle modifications reduces apnea severity and helps you finally get the restorative sleep you need. Consult your doctor for guidance on better managing your sleep apnea. Sweet dreams!

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As a long term Sleep Apnea sufferer, Sean has researched the topic extensively and tried several different therapies and lifestyle changes with varying degrees of success. His efforts now are focused on helping people get diagnosed early and begin treating their Sleep Apnea to avoid long-term health impacts.

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