Can Sleep Apnea Kill You?

Updated on August 26, 2023
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Sleep apnea is one of the common sleep disorders. It manifests as snoring, groaning, and gasping for air which can wake you up. It happens when the airflow is a temporary cut and we don’t receive enough air. As a result, breathing temporary stops, only for you to be waking up gasping for air. The condition is quite common, but doctors and scientists are still cracking down the enigma about it. However, as is with every condition that temporarily stops our breathing, one of the main questions is, can sleep apnea kill you?

Sleep apnea occurs because of several reasons. It can be a result of obesity, thick neck, heart disease, diabetes, or simply old age. However, before we get to the point, it’s important to establish the levels of severity of sleep apnea.

Severity of Your Sleep Apnea Condition

If you’re already diagnosed with sleep apnea, you’re probably going through certain therapies whether it’s CPAP machine or some other. If you’re curious about how exposed to the condition you’re, it’d be the best to determine the severity of this condition.

If you didn’t visit your doctor or get diagnosed with sleep apnea yet, it’s important to know that the diagnosis often gets conducted through Sleep Study. However, the severity of sleep apnea is measured in events where patients stopped breathing. If you feel that your breathing is frequently disrupted, it’d be best to get an appointment for Sleep Study where professionals will monitor your breathing through the sleep cycle.

With that in mind, the classification of sleep apnea severity goes by mild, moderate, or severe interruptions. This classification is based on the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI)

  • Mild – You experience anywhere from 5 to 14 events where you stopped breathing in an hour.
  • Moderate – You experience 15 to 30 events per hour.
  • Severe – This occurs when more than 30 events per hour are detected.

When sleep apnea is severe, your oxygen saturation may fluctuate through the night. Lower oxygen saturation may also result in fatigue when you wake up, as well as headaches, according to Queensland Health. It’s important to note that fatigue is also a common symptom of sleep apnea. Based on Pulse Oximetry, which sees monitoring oxygen levels in the blood by monitoring pulse, healthy oxygen saturation in the blood is between 96% and 100%.

The oxygen levels under 95% are not recommended but aren’t too risky either. When the oxygen level falls under 90%, you’re likely suffering from an event called hypoxemia. It can happen as a result of heart and lung disease, and if sleep apnea is a result of those, the oxygen levels can drop drastically, which can lead to various consequences, which can lead to death.

Can Sleep Apnea Kill You?

The short answer is yes. It can kill you in your sleep. The question is only how. Oxygen deprivation in sleep caused by sleep apnea can have both short term effects and long term effects.

Sudden Death By Sleep Apnea

In the case of short term effects, sleep apnea can increase chances for sudden death during sleep. In short-term, it can result in a condition called cardiac arrhythmia which can bloc and clog the heart preventing it from performing its function – ultimately leading to death. Other sudden sleep deaths as a result of sleep apnea can be caused by atrial fibrillation, heart attack, and in most severe cases, stroke. 

It’s important to point the connection between sleep apnea and REM sleep. A detailed study has found that obstructive sleep apnea occurs mostly during early morning hours, which coincidentally, occurs when our brain is in the phase of REM sleep. The study also shows that REM sleep occurs more frequently when sleep apnea is occurring. 

You shouldn’t ignore the symptoms of sleep apnea that manifest through the night, especially because you feel your breathing is being disrupted. Losing breath on constant basis because of sleep apnea can harm your health. It can result in high blood pressure (hypertension), heart problems and diabetes. 

There is a clear link between depression, anxiety and memory problems which can result in Alzheimer’s disease. As a result of it, you may feel more sleepy, which often can end up in unwanted accidents. Experts proved that it can result in heart attack, strokes and heart arrhythmias. In short, untreated obstructive sleep apnea can have a death outcome for you.

People who wake up gasping for air as a result of sleep apnea or think they might have it should immediately seek help to be able to sleep normally but also preserve their health.

Long Term Effects Which Lead to Death

There are a lot of studies and reports which conclude that obstructive sleep apnea can have long-term health implications, especially if left untreated. Untreated sleep apnea can result in higher blood pressure because the body doesn’t receive the needed amount of oxygen and restoration through sleeping. As a result, high blood pressure, also known as hypertension can lead to various cardiovascular diseases. 

The second most common effect of sleep apnea that affects our health in the long term is diabetes type 2, as per the study. Finally, sleep apnea can result in cognitive decay and conditions. Various studies confirmed the relation between sleep apnea and depression, memory problems, and other conditions which can result in dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Lastly, sleep disruption such as sleep apnea can lead to problems with sleep deprivation which can result in daytime sleepiness which can lead to unwanted accidents. That said, if untreated, in all forms, sleep apnea can kill you. 

That’s why it’s of utmost importance to go to the health specialist who can instruct you on treating sleep apnea. Whether there’s a need only for a minor lifestyle change or invasive treatment, anything that can help fix your breathing will fix your health problems related to sleep, so don’t ignore the symptoms.

Sleep Apnea is a Silent Killer

A lot of people know that they have sleep apnea, but if they purposely let the symptoms go untreated, some of the consequences will likely follow. For people who don’t know they have sleep apnea, it’s far more difficult and far more tragic for them. Unfortunately, anyone can be diagnosed with sleep apnea but never find out.

Carrie Fisher, an iconic Star Wars star who was celebrated for her role of Princess Leia died in December 2016, after suffering a heart attack. However, according to various reports, including the one in Forbes, that wasn’t just any heart attack, most likely it was caused by Sleep Apnea.

The actress died a few days after she was admitted to the hospital after suffering a heart attack on the flight from London to Los Angeles. Her assistant said in the interview and that through the flight she suffered respiratory events (apneas) which were cutouts in her breathing. That appeared to be normal for her, but it’s unclear whether she knew that she had the condition or not.

As the flight was reaching the end, people on board couldn’t wake her up. After she woke up she started throwing up and lost consciousness soon after. These are the common symptoms of a heart attack in women. The actress enjoyed all the benefits and commonplaces of fame, some of which are drugs which led to addiction, as well as certain mental health problems. That said, a lot of fans and other people thought that Fisher died as a result of that. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office later released a report which states the factors which could potentially lead to Fisher’s death.

Problems with drug abuse were highlighted in the report, but that the main cause was sleep apnea combined with heart disease.

A lot of people argue that dying from sleep apnea during sleep is impossible. However, saying that would be a misunderstanding. That’d be the same as saying that people don’t die from a certain disease, when in fact they do, or of certain effects that come out from that disease. 

The same goes for sleep apnea, perhaps you won’t die in your sleep from oxygen shortage, but you could die from arrhythmia, heart attack, diabetes, and other aforementioned conditions. According to some estimates, 28 million US citizens suffer from sleep apnea. What’s dreading is that about 80% of them don’t even know it. As a result of that 38,000 people in the United States die every year, suffering from stroke or heart attack.

Treatment for Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can trigger mental health issues, heart attack, diabetes, stroke, and other conditions. However, doctors still argue about the best ways to treat sleep apnea. 

It’s important to note that permanent cure for sleep apnea doesn’t exist but that in some cases, indulging in some lifestyle changes can yield a positive result. For example, losing 10% of your body weight may completely minimize the symptoms. If certain lifestyle changes don’t help, your doctor may prescribe more invasive approaches and even surgery.

Natural Ways to Treat Sleep Apnea

Healthy Weight

If your obstructive sleep apnea is mild and doesn’t occur frequently, your health specialist will recommend losing weight (if you’re obese.) Obesity in the upper body often results in a thick neck which is the common culprit behind obstructive sleep apnea. The airway obstruction occurs, and you then find yourself gasping for air.

A lot of studies say that losing a small amount of weight can yield various positive results for treating sleep apnea. The research shows the symptoms are minimized and often so eliminated. Moreover, the reduced symptoms also mean reduced demand for CPAP therapy or upper airway surgery.

If your symptoms disappear with weight loss, remember that you must maintain a healthy weight, or the symptoms will return. In addition to healthy nutrition, drink a lot of water, not before bed, however. Also, try to lay off excess caffeine and alcohol.

Changing Sleep Position

While battling sleep apnea, a lot of doctors recommend changing sleep style, especially if you’re sleeping on your back, that’s the worst sleeping position for sleep apnea based on research from Terry Cralle, a registered nurse and sleep educator. 


While Yoga isn’t a scientifically-proven way to put an end to sleep apnea, a lot of people report positive results from embracing it. What’s known is that participating in Yoga exercises rises the energy level while improving the oxygen flow in our body. Finally, it also improves respiratory function and improves oxygen saturation in the blood.


A group of Swedish researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden has conducted research that shows that the use of humidifiers improves the airflow and tends to lower the symptoms of sleep apnea. They are great for the upper respiratory tract because they open up the airflow and lower congestion.

Researchers also recommend using scent to add up to the effect of the humidifier. That said, you can use peppermint, lavender, or other well-known scents. 

For example, if you’re sleeping on your back or stomach, it’s more likely that the symptoms of sleep apnea will manifest. With that in mind, try sleeping on your side. 

CPAP – Continuous Positive Airway Pressure

While a lot of people call this machine extremely uncomfortable for the quality of sleep, the CPAP machine in addition to weight loss is the most effective treatment option for sleep apnea. It’s a device that consists of a mask-alike oxygen pump that goes over your nose and mouth. It delivers continuous compressed air and prevents breathing obstruction. 

If you’re afraid about the level of comfort, it may indeed be uncomfortable and inconvenient in the beginning, but once you get used to it or see its effects, you’re guaranteed to continue using it.


In most severe conditions, medical experts recommend surgery as a solution to sleep apnea. However, in the greater picture, it’s not the best solution, but rather, the last resort. The surgeries aren’t recommended because there are complications and after-effects. Still, some of the treatments that are used for sleep apnea are tonsillectomy, tracheostomy, bariatric surgery, and adenoidectomy. 

Some treatments are also said not to be effective in the long run and may result in the return of obstructive sleep apnea.


Can sleep apnea kill you? The short answer is yes. However, it’s important to know that death can happen both suddenly and as a result of long battles with chronic diseases. To this day, weight loss and CPAP machine treatment remain the best options for sleep apnea treatment. In some conditions, certain surgical procedures will be proposes. However, they’re not always the most recommended treatments.

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The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.