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How can I tell if my partner really has sleep apnea?

One of the common signs of sleep apnea is excessive snoring. You may notice your partner snoring and then having momentary pauses where they appear to stop breathing for several seconds. Other common symptoms of sleep apnea are waking up tired in the morning or with a headache. They may also be very tired during the day and even fall asleep at inappropriate times, when they did not intend to.

Typically, people who tend to be overweight or obese, or have a very large neck size, are more prone to sleep apnea. However, this is not always the case. The only true way to be able to tell if someone has sleep apnea is to undergo a test called polysomnography, or a sleep study. This is performed overnight at a medical facility, with continuous monitoring, while the person is observed during sleep.
Fred Y. Lin, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (Otolaryngology)

The first sign that some one may have sleep apnea (repeated interrupted breathing during sleep where breathing stops or decreases) is snoring, which constitutes partial obstruction. As people enter deeper sleep later at night, apneic episodes may occur without the partner noticing these events. Fatigue and mood changes are also signs of possible sleep apnea.

Although your partner's snoring might make you want to stuff socks down his throat, instead look for signs of sleep apnea. The most critical indicator is a pause in breathing for more than 10 seconds. But be careful -- breathing can be an illusion.

You may look over at Mr. Lawn-Mower Mouth, see his belly moving up and down, and assume he is breathing; but that might just be his diaphragm trying to pull air down. His gut can be moving, even if he's not inhaling.

So don't just look; listen for changes in breath. Snoring is actually a good thing. (Never thought you'd hear that, huh?) It signals that some air is actually moving in and out. No snoring, after a period of snoring, can be a warning that no air is moving in and out. If there's no sound for 10 or more seconds, and there isn't a whoosh of air out of the nose or mouth, it's a sign that breathing has stopped.

You also can check yourself if you live alone. If you're constantly so tired that you can fall asleep anywhere during the day, it could be a sign of apnea. Another clue is neck size. If it's over 17 inches, you have more than a 50% chance of developing sleep apnea.

Scott M. Leibowitz, MD
Sleep Medicine

If you think your sleep partner has sleep apnea, look for symptoms such as disrupted sleep, feeling tired or sleepy during the day, depression and cardiovascular problems. Watch this video to learn more from Dr. Scott Leibowitz about signs of sleep apnea.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Your partner's buzz saw-like snoring might make you want to stuff a tennis ball down his throat, but restrain yourself and use your unwanted wakefulness to see if sleep apnea may indeed be their problem.

The most critical thing to look for is a pause in breathing for more than 10 seconds. But be careful: breathing can be an illusion. When Mr. Lawn Mower Mouth suddenly falls silent, you may look over and see his belly moving up and down and assume he is breathing. But he actually might not be. That movement might just be his diaphragm trying to pull air down. His gut can be moving even if he's not breathing air in.

What you want to do is listen for changes in his breathing. Snoring is actually a good thing (never thought you'd hear that, huh?). It signals that some air is actually moving in and out.

If his regular snoring suddenly stops, it can be a warning sign that no air is moving in and out. If there's no sound for 10 or more seconds, and there isn't a "whoosh" of air out of the nose or mouth, it's an indication he isn't breathing.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.