What Happens if Sleep Apnea Goes Untreated?

Woman sleeping

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder and what happens if sleep apnea goes untreated? The answer is concerning. The side effects of untreated sleep apnea directly impact cardiovascular and metabolic health. 

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which the patient suffers from recurrent interruptions in breathing patterns during sleep. These interruptions can occur multiple times throughout the night which leads to fragmented sleeping and lack of oxygen intake. 

The disorder manifests in two main forms: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). 

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form. In this form, the airway becomes partially obstructed or completely blocked. OSA mainly happens due to the relaxation of the throat muscles which leads to reduced airflow and lowered oxygen levels in blood. Obstructed airflow causes brief awakenings between sleep and then the brain prompts the body to resume normal breathing.

This becomes a continuous cycle that prevents the patient from having unhindered sleep. Untreated sleep apnea symptoms in OSA include loud snoring, gasping for air during sleep, awakening with a dry mouth, morning headaches, and excessive daytime sleepiness. 

Central sleep apnea (CSA) occurs when the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the muscles responsible for breathing. Unlike OSA, there may not be a physical obstruction in the airway, instead, lack of respiratory effort causes breathing pauses. 

Individuals with CSA may experience shortness of breath upon awakening and have difficulty initiating or maintaining continuous sleep. This form of sleep apnea is less common but can still have many severe consequences.

An early identification and cure of sleep apnea is crucial for improving overall health and quality of life. A severe impact on daily functioning, cognitive performance, and cardiovascular health is what happens if sleep apnea goes untreated. 

Therefore, individuals experiencing symptoms suggestive of sleep apnea should ask themselves what happens if sleep apnea goes untreated. They should consult with a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and personalized prevention and treatment strategies.


Untreated sleep apnea can lead to many detrimental health consequences. To know what happens if sleep apnea goes untreated, it is important to know the actual symptoms. This helps in early self-diagnosis of the disorder and it will save you from the misfortunes of untreated sleep apnea.

Moreover, underlying health conditions are what happens if sleep apnea goes untreated and can also become a cause for developing new ones. Individuals with untreated sleep apnea are at a higher risk of hypertension (high blood pressure). It can further increase the likelihood of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks, strokes, or irregular heart rhythms. 

Symptom 1: Disrupted Breathing

One of the hallmark symptoms of sleep apnea is disrupted breathing during sleep. This manifests as pauses in breathing and often lasting for several seconds or longer. These pauses are typically accompanied by snoring, gasping, or choking sounds as the individual's body struggles to resume normal breathing patterns.

Symptom 2: Daytime Fatigue

Experiencing persistent feelings of tiredness and excessive daytime sleepiness is common among individuals and this is what happens if sleep apnea goes untreated. Despite spending a full night in bed, they may still wake up feeling unrefreshed. They will also struggle to stay awake or alert during the day.

Symptom 3: Impaired Cognitive Function

Sleep apnea can impair cognitive function which leads to difficulties with concentration. The symptoms include memory problems and cognitive problem-solving. Individuals may find it challenging to focus on tasks, retain information, or perform mental tasks that require sustained attention.

Health Risks

When we ask what happens if sleep apnea goes untreated? The first answer is long-term chronic diseases. Untreated sleep apnea has a huge impact on health conditions. Though the symptoms seem unalarming, they can worsen over time. Many patients reach a stage where the results of untreated sleep apnea become the reason for chronic illnesses. Some of the primary health risks associated with untreated sleep apnea include,

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure) - Sleep apnea is strongly linked to hypertension, and the recurrent drops in blood oxygen levels can contribute to elevated blood pressure levels. Hypertension, in turn, increases the risk of cardiovascular complications such as heart attacks, strokes, and irregular heart rhythms.

Metabolic Disorders - Another condition if sleep apnea goes untreated is metabolic disorders. Individuals with untreated sleep apnea are at a higher risk of developing metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. The disrupted sleep patterns and hormonal changes associated with sleep apnea can disrupt glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, contributing to the development of diabetes over time.

Respiratory Issues - Sleep apnea can lead to worsened respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Repeated episodes of breathing pauses and oxygen desaturation can trigger inflammation in the airways, leading to worsened symptoms and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

Mental Health Concerns - Major mental health concerns are another consideration if sleep apnea goes untreated. Chronic sleep deprivation and the resulting daytime fatigue can take a toll on mental health. Untreated sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as irritability and mood swings.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can arise from various physiological factors, lifestyle choices, and underlying health conditions. Understanding the causes is essential for proactive prevention. Here's a closer look at the primary contributors to sleep apnea,

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) can be caused due to,

  1. Muscle Relaxation - During sleep, the muscles in the throat and tongue relax. In individuals with OSA, this relaxation can lead to the collapse or narrowing of the airway, obstructing airflow and causing breathing pauses.
  1. Excess Weight - Obesity is a significant risk factor for OSA. Excess fat deposits around the neck and throat can increase airway resistance, making it more likely for the airway to become blocked during sleep.
  1. Anatomical Factors - Structural abnormalities, such as a deviated septum, enlarged tonsils, or a narrow airway, can predispose individuals to OSA by reducing the space available for airflow.
  1. Aging - As people age, muscle tone naturally decreases, including the muscles that support the airway. This age-related decline in muscle tone can contribute to airway collapse during sleep.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) can be caused due to,

  1. Neurological Conditions - CSA can result from underlying neurological disorders that affect the brain's control over breathing, such as Parkinson's disease, stroke, or brainstem injuries.
  1. Medications - Certain medications, particularly opioids or narcotics, can suppress respiratory drive and lead to central sleep apnea.
  1. Heart Disorders - Conditions such as congestive heart failure or atrial fibrillation can disrupt the normal regulation of breathing, contributing to CSA.

Major Risk Factors

Gender - Men are more likely to develop sleep apnea than women, although the risk for women increases after menopause.

Age - Sleep apnea becomes more common with age, particularly in individuals over 40.

Family History - A family history of sleep apnea or related conditions can increase the risk of developing the disorder. can be caused due to,

Lifestyle Factors - Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, sedative use, and nasal congestion can all exacerbate sleep apnea symptoms by promoting airway relaxation or constriction.

What Happens is Sleep Apnea Goes Untreated for Long-term?

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to a range of serious health complications in the long term. Understanding these potential complications is vital for recognizing the importance of early intervention and treatment. What happens if sleep apnea goes untreated? Well here are some of the long-term side effects of untreated sleep apnea, 

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure) - What happens if sleep apnea goes untreated is the recurrent interruptions in breathing. This leads to oxygen desaturation and fluctuations in blood pressure. This additionally places strain on the heart and blood vessels. Over time, this can contribute to the development or worsening of cardiovascular conditions. This can potentially lead to heart attacks, strokes, or irregular heart rhythms.

Coronary Artery Disease and Heart Failure - The increased workload on the heart and reduced oxygen supply can lead to the development or progression of coronary artery disease and heart failure.

Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes - Chronic sleep disruptions are what happens if sleep apnea goes untreated and it causes severe hormonal changes. Thus sleep apnea can interfere with glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity which contributes to the onset or progression of diabetes.

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness - Chronic sleep deprivation resulting from untreated sleep apnea can impair daytime functioning. Thus leading to excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.

Impact on Work and Daily Activities - Individuals may experience decreased productivity and impaired performance in daily activities. This increases the risk of accidents or injuries due to daytime dysfunction.

Mood Disorders - Untreated sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Such mental impairment stems from the chronic stress of sleep disturbances and the resulting impact on cognitive function and emotional well-being.

Sedation and Anesthesia - Sleep apnea can pose challenges during medical procedures involving sedation or general anesthesia. What happens if sleep apnea goes untreated is that it increases the risk of complications due to breathing problems. It's essential to inform healthcare providers about the condition before undergoing surgery to minimize risks.

Sleep apnea can be presumed as a common habit of snoring or restless sleep. But if the underlying symptoms are ignored, untreated sleep apnea can have a long-term effect on one’s physical and mental health. 

Early detection and proactive self-diagnosis can help people to prevent this common sleep disorder. Consulting a healthcare professional for evaluation and personalized treatment is essential for mitigating the potential risks associated with sleep apnea. Letting sleep apnea go untreated may lead to potential life threatening health conditions, and as a result of that fact, it should it should not be ignored.