The Deadly Duo: Understanding the Link Between Sleep Apnea and Smoking

The health dangers of smoking are well publicized. However, lifestyle choices like smoking can have a larger impact on our daily lives than we may realize. Research shows that those who smoke are almost twice as likely to snore than non-smokers. 

Snoring can have a detrimental impact on a relationship. However, snoring may not be the only night-time issue a smoker may face. Smoking could be a contributing factor for obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that, left untreated, increases the risk of serious health issues including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

The Correlation Between Smoking and Snoring

Snoring results from a partial blockage of the airways. This creates turbulence as the air passes through and the resulting vibrations cause you to snore.

When you smoke, you may irritate the tissues in the airways – causing inflammation. Swelling and the excess mucus produced result in a narrowing of the airways. This leads to further congestion, setting the conditions for more air turbulence and increasing the chance you might snore.

Indeed, a study involving 811 adults illustrated smokers were 2.3 times more likely to snore. This risk increases the heavier a smoker you are. Although someone who smokes less frequently may be less likely to snore, they are still at increased risk from the serious health dangers linked to using tobacco products. 

The Link to Sleep Apnea

Snoring is one of the main symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. If someone who smokes is more likely to snore, it is understandable to query if there is also a positive correlation between sleep apnea and smoking.

Someone with obstructive sleep apnea can frequently experience a brief arousal from sleep caused by breathing difficulties – due to the airways partially closing as throat muscles relax. 

This sees blood oxygen levels drop, causing the brain to awaken the body – and you’re gasping for air. The fragmented sleep causes excessive daytime fatigue, another principal symptom of obstructive sleep apnea.

The chance of being a snorer increases if you smoke due to narrower airways. This narrowing can also cause obstructive sleep apnea.

Smoking is therefore considered one of several contributing risk factors for sleep apnea. Age, obesity, genetics and other lifestyle factors including alcohol are other risk factors linked to sleep apnea.

Lifestyle Changes

As sleep apnea increases your risk of potentially fatal health issues, diagnosis and treatment are crucial. Your healthcare provider will recommend lifestyle changes if these are deemed risk factors. 

Since obesity is a major risk factor, changes aimed at losing weight such as exercise and a more balanced diet might be recommended.

Reducing alcohol consumption is another advisable lifestyle change. This is particularly relevant in the hours before bed -- as alcohol can make it harder to sleep and relaxes the throat tissues further, increasing the risk of their blocking your airways.

Quitting Smoking

For smokers, quitting cigarettes, cigars or pipe tobacco will be at the top of the to-do list. Of course, this is not an easy feat, and you have a better chance of success with a strong network of family and friends to encourage and support you through the process.

By quitting, you remove one of the potential risk factors for sleep apnea. The vast majority of people with sleep apnea are unaware of their condition. Therefore, as well as the benefit to your overall health, when you quit you could find that you are sleeping better.

The side effects of nicotine withdrawal can make quitting a tough battle. One of these side effects is insomnia. The poor quality of sleep you receive after you quit -- and the daytime fatigue you feel -- might make you think you have developed sleep apnea or worsened its symptoms.

It is easier said than done, but perseverance is key as the side effects of nicotine withdrawal are temporary. This is why a good support network is so vital. The insomnia will gradually ease -- and you will find yourself sleeping better and feeling better overall.

Treating Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Such lifestyle changes can form a part of a treatment plan to reduce or eliminate your sleep apnea symptoms. One of the leading treatments is PAP (positive airway pressure). 

PAP involves a device that delivers a continuous stream of pressurized air via tubing to a mask worn while you sleep. 

The pressurized air helps keep the airways open, preventing the drop in blood oxygen levels. Therefore, the brain does not need to keep waking the body for air -- and you return to nights of undisturbed sleep.

PAP can take a little adjusting to, but continued compliance is key in preventing the return of your sleep apnea symptoms. However, you should work with your healthcare provider to find the right treatment for the severity of your sleep disorder, as well as that which will encourage compliance. Further treatment methods include:

  • Oral appliances – these are similar to a mouthguard and are worn as you sleep and help keep the airways open by positioning the jaw forward.
  • Positional therapy – sleeping on your back can worsen symptoms as gravity pulls the throat tissues down to block the airways. You will be advised to sleep on your side -- and a pillow or a wedge can help ensure you sleep in this position.
  • Surgery – if sleep apnea results from large tonsils or adenoids, these could be removed.

Smoking can cause you to snore and may be a contributing risk factor for sleep apnea. Quitting reduces your risk from these conditions, improving the quality of you and your partner’s sleep -- as well as improving your overall health. If you smoke, consult with your healthcare provider for advice on how to quit.