two women hugging and smiling

Women Can Have Sleep Apnea Too

September 24, 2021

When you think about sleep apnea, the condition where breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, what, or rather who, do you think of? If you’re like the vast majority of the general population, you just imagined an overweight middle-aged man.

The fact of the matter is this: women can have sleep apnea too.

According to Dr. Mauricio Reinoso, ASC medical director, “Men are twice as likely to have sleep apnea than women. However, men are often diagnosed with sleep apnea almost 8 times more often than women.” So, why is this the case? You may be thinking that this is because women are less likely to complain that their fatigue or symptoms are absent, but that isn’t true. In fact, women are more likely to discuss their symptoms and problems with their primary care physician (PCP) or dentist specializing in airway. Instead, cases of sleep apnea in women present themselves differently from men, leading to a misdiagnosis or no diagnosis at all.

Signs and Symptoms

There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive (OSA), which happens when muscles in the throat relax; central, which occurs when the brain doesn’t send the proper signals to the muscles in the respiratory system to breathe; and complex, which is when an individual suffers from both OSA and central sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can result from an underdeveloped airway, family history, the use of alcohol and narcotics, and excessive weight on the head, chest, and neck. It is also essential to understand the risk factors of age and gender. That said, sleep apnea can affect anyone at any time.

For starters, let’s review the most common symptoms associated with sleep apnea that present in both men and women:

  • Snoring
  • Mouth breathing
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Insomnia (inability to fall or stay asleep)
  • Morning headaches
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Mental fog
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability

While many individuals struggling with sleep apnea present one or many of the above, it is not guaranteed. As Advanced Sleep Medicine Services, Inc. explains, “Experts have noted some nuances in the way that women may experience sleep apnea compared to men. Instead of sleepiness, which can be strong enough that men will fall asleep while engaged in another task such as driving, women tend to report fatigue.”

Women are also more likely to report feelings of depression and restless leg syndrome, the urge to constantly move one’s legs, especially in the later hours of the day. Additionally, women are less likely to display the typical signs associated with sleep apnea, such as obesity and snoring. Dr. Reinoso explains that “men are less likely to be observant to their bed-partner’s sleep disturbances than women are.” This means even if a woman did snore occasionally, she is less likely to be made aware.

Complications

There are many complications associated with sleep apnea. For one, daytime sleepiness or feelings of fatigue and exhaustion are common indicators of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB). This can result in a reduced level of consciousness, brain fog, feelings of irritability, migraines, and increased frustration. In addition, the sudden drops in oxygen levels that happen during bouts of sleep apnea can lead to strain on the heart and cause hypertension. Left undiagnosed and untreated for many years, this reduction in oxygen levels is dangerous and can ultimately lead to atrial fibrillation, stroke, or heart attack.

The increase in carbon dioxide in the bloodstream can also cause metabolic changes within the body and insulin resistance, otherwise known as type 2 diabetes. Finally, sleep apnea can cause strain on a relationship, as the nonapneic partner can still suffer from a lack of sleep. This is due to a partner that may be restless or loud from snoring. Thankfully, several treatment options available can help those who suffer from sleep apnea find a remedy and boost the quality of their lives and those around them.

Treatments

Treatments for sleep apnea range from the traditional CPAP to the use of modern advancements in medical technology such as an oral mandibular device. Other options include the following:

  • The Vivos System: nonsurgical, personalized oral appliance therapy
  • APAP or BiPAP therapies
  • Surgical intervention or implants
  • Surgical tissue removal, jaw repositioning, or tracheostomy

For milder cases of sleep apnea, your PCP or dentist specializing in airway may also recommend lifestyle changes such as weight loss, exercise, consuming a diet rich in nutrients and minerals, and a reduction or elimination of alcohol consumption and smoking.

The fact of the matter is this: women have sleep apnea too. It is not a disease for middle-aged men. It affects all genders, ethnicities, races, and types of individuals. Dentists and other healthcare professionals must consider this and properly screen for sleep apnea and other airway or sleep-related breathing disorders, even if the symptoms don’t line up perfectly with expectations.