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There’s a growing epidemic in New Zealand and it’s costing the nation more than just a good night’s rest – almost $40 million each year, in fact. And, as our waistlines widen and obesity rates increase, as does the number of people affected by this epidemic. What is it, you may ask? Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).

According to the Australasian Sleep Association, OSA is defined as “a disorder in which breathing is repetitively interrupted during sleep due to collapse of the upper airway.” Untreated, OSA can lead to hypertension, cognitive impairment, diabetes, sexual dysfunction and even heart disease and stroke – not to mention the impact it can have on the sufferer’s quality of life.

Who’s most likely to get it?

Obesity is considered to be the main cause of OSA, regular alcohol consumption (particularly at night), certain illnesses (generally thyroid conditions, large tonsils, certain medications, nasal congestion and even facial bone structure can also be contributing factors. It can strike anyone at any age, but men over the age of 65 and those who have a family history of the disorder have a higher risk of developing OSA.

The symptoms

The severity of each case of OSA varies, but the most common signs include:

  • Snoring
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Tiredness during the day
  • Waking during the night and gasping for air or choking
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Poor memory and concentration
  • Waking up with a sore throat or dry mouth
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Frequently needing to urinate during the night
  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight

While normal sleepers’ breathing is interrupted less than five times per hour, OSA sleepers may experience 5 to 15 interruptions (mild), 15 to 30 (moderate) or even more than 30 (severe). These interruptions may last for 10 seconds or more.

OSA sufferers usually do not exhibit all these symptoms, but experiencing one or more should be cause for further investigation.


There is currently no cure for the condition, however it is treatable via a number of methods. Making certain lifestyle changes (losing weight, adjusting sleep position, improving sleep habits, lowering alcohol consumption and quitting smoking), may help improve OSA, but Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy is the most successful currently available. A CPAP machine involves pumping continuous pressure through the airway via a mask worn over the mouth, nose or both. It essentially holds the airway open and prevents it from closing during sleep.

If you’re worried you may be experiencing symptoms of OSA, visit your doctor as soon as possible.