Is Chronic Coughing a Symptom of Sleep Apnea ?

As more and more people in the United States are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, and many more remain undiagnosed, some medical professionals are taking another look at what symptoms are related to the condition and how it can be more accurately understood. While the more “traditional” symptoms and signs of obstructive sleep apnea still act as indicators, other signs of the condition that may be less obvious are beginning to be connected as well.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

First of all, sleep apnea is a condition in which the body stops breathing as often as it should during sleep. Most commonly, this is caused by a blockage of the airways that results in breathing pauses for several seconds or even up to a minute. In mild cases, this may happen between 5 and 15 times per hour but people with severe case of sleep apnea may experience 30 or more pauses in breathing every hour during sleep.

When the breathing passages are blocked and oxygen is limited, the brain triggers a startle message by delivering a burst of hormones including adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause a reaction that wakes up the body so that the respiratory system starts breathing again. All of this happens repeatedly during the night, not only interrupting sleep but causing many serious side effects and underlying conditions.

Sleep apnea may be difficult for an individual to discover on their own because they don’t observe themselves while they are sleeping. Often times, family members or roommates begin complaining about loud snoring or restless sleep before the person with sleep apnea is truly aware of the situation. In addition to snoring and observable breathing pauses, this sleep related breathing disorder has many other signs and symptoms that should be considered.

Symptoms and Signs of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking up occasionally gasping for air, with a sensation of choking, or coughing
  • Insomnia or lack of restorative sleep
  • Fatigue and daytime sleepiness
  • Waking up with dry mouth or very sore throat
  • Falling asleep during activity such as work or driving
  • Waking up with a headache
  • High blood pressure
  • Personality struggles, mood changes, relationship problems
  • Decreased libido
  • Poor work or school performance
  • Restless movements during sleep with tossing and turning
  • In children, symptoms often mimic ADHD

Sleep apnea is not a matter to take lightly. The results of an oxygen shortage mean that the heart has to work harder in order to pump oxygen through to the body and brain. Heart disease, heart failure, enlarged heart, and stroke can all be the results of this added pressure on the circulatory system. In addition, the constant release of the adrenal and cortisol hormones to start the body awake place an added strain on the lymphatic system, resulting in various health problems.

Sleep apnea is also directly linked with weight gain and obesity which can wreak havoc on the body, causing problems such as metabolic syndrome and diabetes. People with untreated obstructive sleep apnea have a greater risk of premature death and should take these symptoms very seriously.

Chronic Cough Sleep Apnea

Defined as a cough lasting for over two months, chronic cough has recently been linked to people with obstructive sleep apnea. This is the most common reasons that people are referred to respiratory clinics. Chronic cough is believed to affect between 10% and 30% of the population, but the numbers are difficult to narrow down as it often goes undiagnosed. Even when chronic cough is diagnosed, the cause often remains a mystery which makes treatment very difficult as well.

The link in the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea and chronic cough is difficult to determine, but some researchers believe that the inflammation of the airways related to chronic cough may also be a trigger for obstructive sleep apnea. One study has indicated that treatment of OSA with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine brought relief to the chronic cough symptom in a majority of the cases.

Patients who have inexplicable chronic cough should certain consider the potential that they may have obstructive sleep apnea, particularly if they exhibit other symptoms as well. This is especially true if the chronic cough is particularly present during sleep at night. Although it’s hard to tell which of the conditions causes the other, the link between the two is becoming more and more obvious.

Sleep Apnea Coughing and Choking

One of the signs that some people experience related to obstructive sleep apnea is waking up from sleep experiencing coughing, choking, or gasping for air. This is believed to be due to the fact that something in the airways has blocked the air from flowing through. When the person eventually wakes up, they feel like they are starving for oxygen and need to get air in quickly. This feeling of choking is very common. Some people even dream that they are choking while their brain is busy trying to wake them up in order to get them to breathe again.

When inflammation of the throat or nasal passages is the reason for the sleep apnea, this may trigger irritation in the throat. It makes sense that irritation in the throat that causes sleep apnea episodes may also result in coughing or choking. As the coughing may tend to exacerbate inflammation of the throat, the experience of sleep apnea episodes and coughing can become a vicious cycle of one leading to the other and then back again.


If you believe that you or someone you know may be exhibiting signs and symptoms of sleep apnea, a visit to a doctor should be scheduled. Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that should be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible before it causes any more damage to the health. Although sleep apnea can lead to serious health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, stroke, and even premature death, the prognosis and treatment for people with OSA is positive. Your doctor can help you come up with a treatment plan that is fairly non-invasive to help you get restorative sleep and start feeling like yourself again!

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