How Dangerous is it to Stop Breathing When You Have Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition which causes the airways to narrow during the overnight hours. As a result, it can be difficult for the body to obtain the oxygen that it requires to function properly.

Sleep apnea has three levels of severity (mild, moderate or severe) and this is based upon the number of “apnea” episodes occurring each hour – which are pauses in breathing.

What about the dangers of stopping breathing in sleep apnea? How risky is such a situation and should you be concerned? 


To address this question, we will first take a look at how sleep apnea impacts the mechanics of respiration before moving on to look at additional health risks associated with this chronic condition.

The Roots of Breathing Difficulties

There are many conditions that can contribute to the development of sleep apnea. Some of these include obesity, hypothyroidism, smoking, excessive alcohol use, and even possible genetic factors. 

Either way, sleep apnea causes the tissues associated with the upper airway (the tongue, the soft palate and the uvula) to relax. This may result in them partially or fully collapsing, impeding your ability to breathe. 

When you are asleep, the functions of your body are primarily controlled by the autonomic nervous system – so you are essentially on “autopilot.” 

If breathing is only mildly disrupted, common responses include snoring or choking. These might not necessarily cause you to awaken.

When You Stop Breathing 

Things begin to change if you completely stop breathing -- or if the carbon dioxide levels in your bloodstream begin to rise to serious levels. 

In either case, your autonomic nervous system will cause you to awaken. For instance, you may suddenly be jarred from your sleep choking or gasping for breath. 

The good news is that in the vast majority of cases, breathing interruptions will not pose an immediate threat to your life. The bad news is that chronic OSA and severe forms of sleep apnea can lead to long-term health risks. Let's now take a look at the dangers of stopping breathing in sleep apnea and the relationship with other medical conditions. 

The Role of Hypoxemia

Hypoxemia is a medical condition which occurs when the oxygen levels within your blood dip to below 90 percent of normal levels. This places the body under a significant amount of stress, particularly the cardiovascular system. 

If hypoxemic events occur on a regular basis – as with severe forms of obstructive sleep apnea -- the muscles of the heart could become damaged. 

Other short-term risks include cardiac arrhythmia (an abnormal heartbeat) and even a heart attack.

Long-Term Risks

While short-term dangers certainly need to be addressed, the long-term threats to your health are just as profound. This is when another term known as oxidative stress comes into play. 

Oxidative stress takes place when the body is deprived of oxygen for extended and repetitive periods of time. Studies have found that this type of stress may lead to systemic inflammation and dramatically increase the chances of being diagnosed with heart disease. 

While cardiac disease is an obvious concern, there are indeed other chronic long-term health conditions that may likewise be attributed to obstructive sleep apnea including:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Difficulty concentrating and drowsiness
  • Stress, anxiety and depression

The main takeaway point is that OSA is rarely fatal in and of itself. However, it can nonetheless lead to health conditions that may pose serious long-term risks. 

How to Reduce the Dangers

There are several ways in which you can mitigate the effects outlined above. Perhaps the most practical involves making specific lifestyle changes that can lessen the impact of OSA. These include (but may not be limited to):

  • Quitting smoking
  • Avoiding the excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Losing weight
  • Embracing a healthy diet
  • Adopting an active lifestyle
  • Modifying your sleeping position
  • Obtaining at least seven hours of quality rest each night

This final point is particularly relevant -- and the use of a positive airway pressure (PAP) device can often provide the relief that you have been looking for.

The Benefits of PAP Therapy

A PAP machine functions by providing your body with air at a slightly increased pressure while asleep. This helps to lessen the chances that your airways narrow -- ensuring that your body receives the amount of oxygen it requires. 

Research already seems to suggest that regularly using a PAP machine can have beneficial effects on your cardiovascular health. 

This therapy may also be able to limit the chances of developing certain conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmias and stroke. 

Although more studies need to be carried out, there is little doubt that using a PAP therapy will promote a sound night of sleep. 

If you are currently suffering from obstructive sleep apnea and you have become concerned about the long-term risks mentioned previously, it is wise to speak with your doctor or a professional sleep specialist. There are many powerful solutions to consider.