Alcohol, a muscle relaxant, can slacken throat tissues more than usual during sleep, making the airway more vulnerable to obstruction. Though alcohol's effect usually dissipates as it clears the body throughout the night, cutting down may help.
Medications. Prescription medications can also create a double whammy. "If you're taking muscle relaxants, you're going to expose yourself to greater snoring and sleep apnea," says Chediak, and "the vast majority of sleeping medications have a muscle relaxant property." In addition, sleeping pills make it harder to arouse from sleep. A noise must be louder. A pain must be sharper. Likewise, an episode of sleep apnea must last longer because "more respiratory compromise" is needed to wake the brain up to restore normal breathing, he says.
Sleep position. Typically, sleeping on your back makes sleep apnea worse, and sleeping on your side makes it better, says Schulman. That has to do with how and where weight falls on the airway.
Sleep deprivation. It is thought that the body craves the deepest kind of sleep when sleep deprived and will launch into it to make up for lost shuteye, says Schulman. But sleep apnea tends to be worse during that deep-sleep period, called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, owing to its heightened state of relaxation, he explains. Thus, carving out adequate time for a night's rest is important, he says. On the other hand, sleep deprivation is often a consequence of sleep apnea, which may create a cruel cycle.
Smoking. Cigarettes are direct irritants to the upper airway—the throat, the uvula, the soft palate, the tongue—and over time can make the area swell.
Anatomy. For some people, an anatomic abnormality may be the culprit. Enlarged tonsils, a deviated septum, or a smaller-than-normal airway are among them, says Schulman.