Does choking, coughing or snoring keep you or your spouse up at night? It could be sleep apnea


by Baylor Scott & White Health

Jun 8, 2022

You’ve just drifted off to sleep and suddenly, you’re awakened by your spouse’s loud gasping. They settle right back into slumber, but you’re left awake, listening to them snore. Your sleep partner’s nighttime habits are not only annoying—they could also be dangerous if they are suffering from sleep apnea.

What are the risks of sleep apnea?

“Basically, what happens is that the person is actually choking,” said Carl D. Boethel, MD, a pulmonologist and director of the Baylor Scott & White Sleep Institute – Temple. “The brain kicks in and wakes the person up. It’s a survival mechanism.”

Although there are many factors, the biggest cause of sleep apnea is obesity.

“About 50 percent of people who are obese have this condition,” he said. “And the prevalence of this disease is much higher now than it was 20 years ago. Part of that is because we’re recognizing it more, but the second part is that our obesity rates have climbed.”

Although gasping for air awakens the person and keeps them from choking, sleep apnea can lead to more serious illnesses.

Stroke and heart attack

“Sleep apnea itself can put the person at double the risk of stroke as well as the risk of myocardial infarction (a heart attack),” Dr. Boethel said.

When you have sleep apnea, you aren’t getting air into your lungs, preventing the oxygenation of your blood and causing strain on the heart.

“Every time you wake up in the middle of the night, you get a little bit of an adrenaline rush, and that strains the heart as well,” he said.


Sleep apnea can also lead to diabetes if left untreated because the low oxygen at night increases insulin resistance. The body doesn’t utilize glucose as well, so the blood sugar goes up.

Car accidents

Another risk associated with this sleep disorder is an increased chance of being involved in an automobile accident.

“If you have excessive daytime sleepiness, your reaction time and your ability to move as well as you should are reduced,” Dr. Boethel said.

If you have sleep apnea, the chance of having a car wreck can increase anywhere from two-and-a-half to seven times.

How do you know if you have sleep apnea?

“Coughing and choking would be some of the signs of sleep apnea,” Dr. Boethel said. “Usually, the most specific thing is that the spouse will state that they hear the patient stop breathing at night.”

Feeling tired and fatigued during the day can also be a sign that you’re not getting the rest you need.

But, there is hope for sleep apnea sufferers in the form of a sleep study at the Baylor Scott & White Sleep Institute.

“The patient will come in and we’ll attach some wires to their head, measuring brain waves, which will determine whether they are asleep or not,” Dr. Boethel said. “There’s a cannula that goes near the nose to measure breathing and a few belts around the chest and waist to measure the respiratory effort.”

If you have no air flow at the nose, but have respiratory effort in the chest, then you could have sleep apnea.

Treatment options for sleep apnea

“The most common treatment is the use of positive airway pressure through the use of a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device,” he said. “This is a mask and a machine that provides air pressure, which blows air into the throat, opening the airways.”

Other treatments include removing the tonsils—for children suffering from sleep apnea—or an oral appliance that is designed to pull the lower jaw forward.

“We can treat the sleep apnea, but treating the underlying cause—which is the need for weight loss, exercise and a better, healthier lifestyle—is really what’s key to prevention of this problem,” Dr. Boethel said.

If you think you might have sleep apnea or another sleep-related problem, ask your primary care physician for a referral or find a sleep center near you today.

If you don’t have a primary care doctor, we can help you find one near you today.

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