Sleep apnea is where breathing starts and stops during sleep. Some types of sleep apnea cause snoring and daytime sleepiness. Infants also experience periods without breathing during sleep.

This article discusses the possible causes of breathing problems during sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common reason people stop breathing during sleep. The condition is due to a blockage in the upper airway, usually by the airway tissue.

This blockage in the airways causes the tongue to fall against the soft palate or throat, a disruption that can make breathing difficult.

When this occurs, breathing may temporarily stop and cause someone to wake up. Occasionally, people will wake up with a sensation of panic or being unable to breathe.

Obstructive sleep apnea can also cause snoring. Some people wake several times during the night without remembering it. The condition can also cause tiredness in the day and difficulty concentrating.

Anyone can experience sleep apnea. But the condition is more common in men, people with obesity, and those who sleep on their back.

Without proper treatment, this condition can increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health conditions.

A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine can help prevent sleep apnea by keeping the airways open with a constant flow of air. Some other treatment options include:

  • mouthguards that keep the tongue in place to prevent the airway from collapsing in on itself
  • avoiding sleeping on the back
  • lifestyle changes, such as maintaining a moderate weight
  • surgery to correct structural issues with the upper airway that increase the risk of obstructions
  • avoiding drinking, smoking, and drugs that increase the risk of nighttime breathing issues

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is where signaling problems in the brain affect the ability to breathe. It may indicate a serious medical condition that can become life threatening.

Some potential causes of CSA include:

  • Drugs: Certain drugs, such as opioids or antianxiety medications, may slow activity in the central nervous system, leading to CSA. Some people may also experience this condition after taking high doses of these drugs or following a drug overdose.
  • Cheyne-Stokes breathing: A pattern of breathing that sometimes occurs in the later stages of heart or other organ failures. It usually includes periods of hyperventilation and gaps in breathing. The problem is more common in people who are near death.
  • Primary sleep apnea: Another condition that causes someone to stop breathing during sleep without a clear cause.

The prognosis for CSA can be severe, particularly in someone with an underlying health condition. The primary treatment involves addressing the underlying cause, which may improve symptoms of CSA.

For certain individuals with CSA, a CPAP machine trial may be a viable option after treating the underlying cause. The device helps these patients by treating unrecognized obstructive apnea.

In some cases of CSA, doctors might consider an adaptive servo-ventilator (ASV). This device monitors breathing and adjusts pressure levels to maintain consistent volumes of air entering a person’s lungs during sleep.

Mixed sleep apnea, also known as complex sleep apnea, is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and CSA.

People with mixed sleep apnea may first experience obstructive sleep apnea. They may develop symptoms of CSA after using a CPAP machine to treat obstructive sleep apnea.

Healthcare professionals still need to refine optimal treatment options for mixed sleep apnea. One of the best current treatments involves using CPAP devices. Doctors will apply the lowest pressure setting to successfully keep the airways free from obstructions while restricting CSA symptoms from developing.

Where CPAP is not effective, doctors can try ASV devices for greater ventilation control.

Apnea is more common in infants, particularly those born prematurely. Infant apnea occurs for many of the same reasons as in adults, and it can take the form of obstructive, central, or mixed sleep apnea.

Sudden infant death syndrome is where an apparently healthy infant suddenly dies without a clear cause. The condition can also occur at night from breathing disruptions. Always speak with a doctor if there are signs of infant apnea.

Infants with sleep apnea may need a machine to provide breathing support. They also may need treatment with medications. However, these options tend to be short-term measures. Any medical condition that causes infant sleep apnea or makes it worse also needs treatment.

There are several less common causes of apnea.

For example, some people experience choking during the night due to eating or putting objects in their mouths while sleepwalking. Some infants might also put something in their mouth while sleeping, leading to choking.

Doctors recommend avoiding using unnecessary blankets, stuffed animals, or other toys in an infant’s crib. This will reduce the chances of the infant choking on a foreign object.

People with a history of sleep disorders should talk with a doctor about lowering the risk of choking during the night.

Nighttime episodes of apnea can provoke anxiety and difficulty breathing after waking. However, many cases are treatable with machines or devices that support breathing during sleep.

Always consult with a doctor if there are signs of sleep apnea. A person should also avoid self-medicating — doctors can diagnose the type of sleep apnea and recommend the right treatments.