Medications that Cause Sleep Apnea

If you are having trouble sleeping, are snoring loudly, wake up with a headache, are fatigued during the day, have had significant weight gain, or find yourself falling asleep while driving or at work, it is possible that you have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a serious health condition in which the body does not breathe regularly during sleep.

The most common form is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) where a blockage in the breathing passages physically keeps the body from being able to breathe as it should. This may be particularly affected by people who experience weight gain or obesity. Less commonly, central sleep apnea (CSA) is when the brain does not communicate to the respiratory system to tell the muscles to breathe. This type of sleep apnea can be caused by various problems such as brain infection, stroke, spinal or nerve damage, or drug use.

How Medications Cause Sleep Apnea

Certain drugs may contribute to the cause of sleep apnea as they have a tendency to induce weight gain, which is one of the main cause of obstructive sleep apnea. Other medications that are meant to relieve anxiety, stop convulsions, treat pain, or help with sleep may actually be a trigger for sleep apnea as they may keep the brain from telling the respiratory system to breathe.

Medications that Can Cause Sleep Apnea

Here are some of the types of medications that may lead to problems with sleeping disorders, including sleep apnea:

  • Opiates. Also called narcotics or opioids, this class of medications can cause sleepiness and has a tendency to “numb” the brain to keep it from communicating to the body to breathe. Some names include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, codeine, and more.
  • Antidepressants. Many of the older versions of antidepressants (i.e. Elavil or Paxil) have a tendency to stimulate appetite and cause weight gain. Part of the issue with these medications is that they suppress REM sleep and this can cause serious problems with sleep disturbances and weight gain.
  • Muscle Relaxants. Used to relieve anxiety, treat seizures, and work as anticonvulsants, these medications often dull the brain’s ability to tell the respiratory system to breathe. Klonopin, Xanax, Valium, and Ativan are some of the common brand names for these drugs.
  • Antipsychotics. Certain drugs used to treat mental instability can cause large amounts of weight gain very quickly and even insulin resistance leading to diabetes. These include Abilify, Seroquel, Risperdal, and others.
  • Barbiturates. Less commonly used today because of their side effects, these are used for sedation purposes related to seizures, panic attacks, or other anxiety problems. Phenobarbital and Amobarbital are some of the more common names.
  • Allergy Medicines. Antihistamines may lead to weight gain, including brand names such as Zyrtec and Allegra. The contrast is that that allergies can also be the cause of sleep apnea if they lead to nasal congestion, so it is important to check with your doctor about how to control this.
  • Corticosteroids. Used to control inflammation, these medications (Prednisone, for example) can cause significant weight gain as well as asthma, and other autoimmune conditions that could be related to sleep apnea.

Most of these medications are available only by prescription from a medical professional. If you are taking any of these medications that are having an adverse effect on your sleeping, or even causing sleep apnea, it is critical that you contact your doctor right away to discuss other options for your health.

Dangers of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can be the trigger for many serious diseases that can affect your health and even shorten your life. Cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, acid reflux (GERD), adult asthma, and even early onset Alzheimer’s disease have all been linked in a relationship with sleep apnea. Obviously this is a serious condition that should be addressed if there is any reason to believe that you or someone you care about has sleep apnea.


The good news is that sleep apnea is a condition that is treatable with many options that are non-invasive. While it can be life-threatening if left untreated, it doesn’t have to be. CPAP machines, sleep apnea pillows, positional therapy, weight loss, and other treatment options are all available to get you back to healthy sleeping habits and a happier you.

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