Sleep Apnea in Women: What You Need to Know

sleep apnea in women

Most cases of snoring are often associated with sleep apnea, which is common among men, thus often considered as a male disorder. In fact, men are three times more likely to have sleep apnea syndrome compared to women. 

However, there are increasing cases of sleep apnea in women, where at least one out of every five women is diagnosed with sleep apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is more than just a simple snore. It is a potentially fatal disorder, and if ignored, it can often lead to serious health consequences that can be deadly. People suffering from sleep apnea are at high risk of driving accidents, heart problems, strokes, and even death.

Sleep Apnea: No longer a “men’s disorder”

Men tend to snore loudly and frequently compared to women. Therefore, sleep apnea was traditionally associated with gender and considered a “men’s disorder”. However, things are changing now. Sleep apnea is no longer a man’s domain.

The reason for the statistical discrepancy lies in the under-diagnosis of sleep apnea in women because they don’t exhibit the same symptoms as men. Snoring is the main indication of sleep apnea, but it is subtler and less frequent in women.

Sleep Apnea, Snoring, and Women

Yes, women do snore! Research shows that 28% of middle-aged women snore, compared to 44% of men. Of course, men tend to snore louder and more frequently than women. While men’s snoring can continue throughout the night, women’s snoring is lighter and mostly limited to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

But REM sleep is elusive in itself, which accounts for only 20 percent of the total sleep time. This makes sleep apnea in women more difficult to diagnose and treat correctly.

This subtle variation of snoring is called upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS). It can also lead to breathing problems followed by a drop in blood oxygen level in the long term, as seen in obstructive sleep apnea.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea in Women

The classic symptoms of sleep apnea like snoring, gasping, and snorting are obvious among men. Even though women mildly exhibit these classic symptoms, they are also more likely to display signs of insomnia, depression, sleep fragmentation, or headaches.

The symptoms of sleep apnea in women may not be the same as those observed in men. There may be no symptoms at all. Even if there are some symptoms, they are often mistaken for depression or menopause.

But if we dig a little deeper, women’s sleep is as complex as their brain, which continues to change throughout their life. Sleep disorders in women are often affected by their menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause.

Sleep Apnea and Menopause

Very few women indeed suffer from sleep apnea until menopause. Sleep apnea in women is as low as one-third of the total cases of men.

However, menopause triggers hormonal fluctuations in women, increasing their chance of having sleep apnea by three times. In other words, sleep apnea is more common in women after menopause. It can precipitate or aggravate the existing sleep apnea in women.

If the symptoms of disturbed sleep are evident after menopause, it should be taken seriously, as they might be potential signs of sleep apnea or another sleep disorder.

Sleep Apnea and Obesity

Obese women are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea in addition to other health risks. In fact, the risk of sleep apnea is higher in obese women than in men.

Sleep apnea and obesity can be a deadly combination. It can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke. This may increase the mortality rate of sleep apnea in women.

In this case, the treatment of sleep apnea should focus on controlling the metabolic syndrome by managing weight and lowering the risks of cardiovascular attacks.

Sleep Apnea and Pregnancy

Most of the women are diagnosed with sleep apnea for the first time during their pregnancy. The complications are particularly evident during the third trimester of pregnancy.

Light and occasional snoring is a normal occurrence with pregnant women. However, if the snoring gets heavier and more frequent over time, it indicates a higher risk of complications in pregnancy.

Pregnant women are more vulnerable to the risks of gestational hypertension and preeclampsia due to snoring, which has adverse effects on the growth of the fetus.

Sleep apnea during pregnancy can be fatal for both the woman and the child. It is one of the major causes responsible for maternal death. Therefore, all necessary precautions should be taken. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy can be used to help pregnant women breathe more easily during sleep.

Women sleep differently than men

As surprising as it may seem, women’s sleep is more complicated than men’s. Thanks to evolution, women can snap out of sleep more easily than men. At the same time, they are also able to grab a short but deep sleep, making it more restorative.

This is one of the reasons that makes the symptoms of sleep apnea less subtle in women. They tend to quickly snap out of sleep apnea. As a result, its effects are less severe in women, making it primarily a “men’s disorder”.

Problem in Diagnosis

Most cases of sleep apnea in women are not diagnosed at all. The symptoms that they exhibit are so subtle, which often lead to an incorrect diagnosis of other conditions like insomnia and hypertension. Almost 90 percent of sleep apnea victims go on for more than 10 years before they are correctly diagnosed and treated.

Choosing the Right Treatment

Sleep apnea should not be taken lightly because it can deprive people of one of the best ways to revitalize their bodies. It should be diagnosed and treated right away.

The right treatment of sleep apnea starts with the correct diagnosis of the problem, which can be done with a sleep study before and after treatment.

There are various options available regarding the treatment of sleep apnea, both surgical and non-surgical. Non-surgical treatments like CPAP are more effective, which can completely eliminate sleep apnea.


Dan was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2017 when he was only 32 years old. He has been using a BIPAP machine for his treatment. He hopes to provide a patient's perspective on the sleep apnea experience. Dan lives in Tampa with his girlfriend and 2 dogs.

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