Does it seem like your snoring has gotten worse in the last few months? Or maybe you’ve noticed a spike in morning headaches, a drop in your sex drive, or a lack of focus at the office.  If so, it’s because winter makes sleep apnea worse. 

This is a topic doctors and researchers continue to investigate, but a growing number of studies in the last decade indicate a change in the weather can also have a severe impact on your sleep quality. 

Already, winter can be an especially tough season to navigate. It’s colder, the days are shorter, and you’re often more tired, with most Americans tending to work more during the winter — with an eye towards taking vacations when it’s warmer. These factors can add up and take a toll on your health — including making your sleep problems worse. 

This applies to both those who have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, as well as those who haven’t. If you are already using CPAP treatment, it’s critical to stay consistent with your treatment; failing to adhere to your protocol can make your sleep apnea worse during the winter.

And for those who are undiagnosed, it’s important to remember sleep apnea, when left untreated, can increase your risk of stroke, heart failure and diabetes. Here’s how winter impacts sleep apnea, along with a few tips to help fight the effects. 

The Link Between Winter and Sleep Apnea

A 2012 study published in Chest, a peer-reviewed medical journal, provided perhaps the best insight into the connection between sleep apnea and winter. 

The study looked at more than 7,500 patients who had visited a sleep clinic during a 10 year period. The participants slept in the clinic for one night, where data was collected on how frequently their sleep was interrupted due to disturbances in their breathing pattern. 

Cold weather, the study found, ended up being a strong indicator that participants would have more sleep arousals during the night. 

This was measured by looking at the apnea-hypopnea index, or AHI, for all the patients. The AHI records how many times participants have their sleep interrupted each hour. 

According to the study, those who visited the sleep clinic had a median AHI value of 17.8 during the winter, compared to a median AHI value of 15 during seasons with warmer weather. 

In other words: participants experienced a near-20% surge in the number of nighttime breathing disruptions during the winter when compared to all other parts of the year. 

The study also found most severe examples of sleep arousals — where participants experienced up to 30 breathing interruptions per hour — were recorded during the winter. 

This research also highlights the importance of using your CPAP machine if you’ve already been diagnosed with sleep apnea. Winter is the worst time to be inconsistent with your treatment. To avoid experiencing the same issues, it’s essential to follow your protocol — especially considering sleep arousals jump dramatically during the winter.

Another study from 2015 used Google Search trends to call attention to the link between winter and sleep apnea. The study, which looked at seven years worth of search results from the U.S. and Australia, indicated search queries related to sleep apnea and snoring peaked during winter and early spring. 

Why Winter Can Make Sleep Apnea Worse 

More research is needed to examine why sleep apnea is worse in the winter, but one major factor is the simple fact that the weather is typically colder. 

Cold weather can make sleep apnea worse by contributing to the disorder’s underlying issues. 

Remember, obstructive sleep apnea — the most common form of sleep apnea — occurs when the airway narrows, making it more difficult to breathe. The oxygen level in your bloodstream, as a result, lowers because your body isn’t getting enough air. This is a problem, and your brain tries to remedy it by sending your body small jolts to reopen your airway. Usually, you never notice these brief interruptions, but they’re what end up getting measured when you go in for a sleep test. 

Less humidity in the winter is a significant reason sleep apnea is worse in the winter. Especially if you’re breathing cold air in through your mouth which can dry out the airway and lungs. The cold dry air also dries out the nasal passages. 

Dry nasal passages can make your body more vulnerable to the cold virus. At night, it’s also harder to breathe in the winter because the cold weather contributes to congestion and the common cold. 

Being sick only adds to the constricted airway issue your body is already dealing with when you have sleep apnea. This is one reason why sleep arousals are more frequent during winter. 

RELATED: How Sleep Boosts Your Immune System

At the same time, this is a two-way street: poor sleep has been shown to be the prime factor in determining whether you catch a cold, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco found in 2015. 

The 2015 study concluded participants who slept for 6 hours or less on average were 4.2 times more likely to develop a cold compared to those who slept for 7 hours or more. By working long hours during the winter, and coupled with the weather changes that already increase the risk of sickness, you’re more likely to develop a sickness that compounds your sleep apnea issues. 

Tips to Handle Sleep Apnea in Winter

There are a few tips to keep in mind to give yourself the best chance possible of avoiding the negative impact winter can have on sleep apnea. 

For Those Diagnosed With Sleep Apnea:

First, if you’ve already been diagnosed with sleep apnea and are currently using a CPAP machine, being diligent is the key. When it comes to CPAP, you should keep these three things in mind during winter: 

  • Clean: Most people with sleep apnea refrain from cleaning their CPAP machines every day. It’s understandable, but during the winter, it’s important to wash your mask, water chamber and tubing on a daily basis with warm water and soap. Keeping your machine clean will cut back on germ build-up and also help it work efficiently during the night. 
  • Consistency: Be sure to use your CPAP every night. This is especially critical during the winter, when sleep arousals spike. 
  • Humidifier: CPAP machines usually include a humidification setting, but it’s also good to keep a humidifier in your room when it’s cold out. This helps counteract the dry weather, which is often tied to catching a cold in the winter.

For Those Who Have Not Been Diagnosed With Sleep Apnea: 

The following tips also apply to those who are already seeking treatment for sleep apnea — but they’re especially important to remember if you are not currently using a CPAP machine. 

  • Dress appropriately: This one is an obvious place to start. To fight the chance you’ll get a cold and make your sleep apnea worse in the process, it’s important to stay warm in winter. When going out, be sure to bundle up; you can always remove clothing when needed. Also, covering your mouth and nose with a scarf whenever possible is a smart move. As mentioned above, cold weather can dry out your airway and nasal passages — and make it easier to catch a cold. 
  • Breathe through your nose: Another simple measure to take. By breathing through your nose, your body is able to better catch particles entering the airway; it’s also better able to cut back on congestion by filtering what enters your lungs — helping you to breathe better during the night. 

Still, you may already be at the point where your snoring is making sleep a nightmare — for both you and your significant other. 

If you’re unsure if you have sleep apnea, but find yourself snoring loudly and feeling excessively tired throughout the day, among other common symptoms you may want to check out our helpful guide to 7 serious signs you might be suffering from sleep apnea

If you’re ready to discover how a sleep specialist can help you, contact Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee today and we can get you set up for better sleep. 

References

Prather, Aric, et al. (2015). Behaviorally assessed sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. Sleep, 38 (9): 1353-1359. Retrieved on February 15, 2020 from: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4531403/#__ffn_sectitle

Cassol, CM, et al. (2012). Is sleep apnea a winter disease? Meteorologic and sleep laboratory evidence collected over 1 decade. Chest, 142 (6): 1499-1507. Retrieved on February 17, 2020 from: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22700779

Ingram, DG, et al. (2015). Seasonal trends in sleep-disoriented breathing: evidence from internet search engine query data. Sleep Breath, 19(1): 79-84. Retrieved on February 17, 2020 from: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24595717