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Taking Sleep Apnea Medicine: Harmful or Not?

Many people who have been diagnosed with sleep apnea are sick of suffering from poor sleep and are looking for sleep apnea medicine to help them get a better night’s sleep. The problem is that there is really no effective medication to treat sleep apnea, although a few sleep apnea medications are currently in the development and testing stages. Still, it is unclear whether or not these drugs will effectively treat sleep apnea or if they will receive FDA approval.

A lot of people are quite surprised to find out that there is currently no FDA approved sleep apnea medicine on the market, but there are actually quite good reasons behind the lack of sleep apnea medication. 

Due to the lack of approved sleep apnea medicine on the market, many people who have been diagnosed with this sleeping disorder feel that they can combat their sleeping problems by simply taking an over the counter sleeping aid. But this can actually be incredibly dangerous and even potentially fatal if the person has a more severe form of the disorder.

The main reason that doctors will not prescribe medicine for sleep apnea is that most sleeping aids contain sedatives which slow down the body, including breathing function, which can cause serious problems for those who already have trouble breathing during sleep. 

People who suffer from sleep apnea already have a lowered rate of breathing, and any further reduction in breathing rate could cause their blood oxygen saturation levels to drop to a dangerous level. This is why your doctor will recommend a sleep apnea device such as an apnea mouth guard or a CPAP machine if you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea. 

Medicine to Promote Wakefulness in Sleep Apnea Patients

sleep apnea medicationWhile there are no medications which can successfully treat sleep apnea, some doctors will still prescribe certain medications for sleep apnea patients which can help reduce sleepiness. Some people with sleep apnea still report being extremely tired despite the use of a CPAP machine. 

In these cases, your doctor may prescribe pills which will help you feel more energetic during the day. These pills are almost never prescribed until CPAP has been tried for at least several months or even a year or more, and even then only in conjunction with continued CPAP therapy.

The most commonly used medicines are modafinil (brand name Provigil) and armodafinil (Nuvigil), both of which work to reduce tiredness by affecting certain chemicals in the brain. Many sleep apnea patients who take this type of medication also report having improved memory function and concentration.

sleep apnea medicationBoth of these medications are usually quite successful in promoting wakefulness in sleep apnea patients, and generally considered quite safe for prolonged daily use. However, there are a few side effects to be aware of, including headaches, dizziness, and anxiety, as well as difficulty falling to sleep or even insomnia. 

There are also a few side effects which can make the sleep apnea much worse, including inflammation of the nasal passages. If this occurs, you will need to stop using the medicine immediately as it will be counterproductive to your CPAP therapy.

These medications are also not recommended for pregnant women or those who are breast feeding. In addition, they may also interfere and reduce or even completely eliminate the effect of certain birth control medications.

Research into Potential Sleep Apnea Medications

Many pharmaceutical companies and research institutes have long been searching for effective sleep apnea medications, and some believe that they may be getting close. Most of the studies revolve around medications which have already been approved by the FDA to treat other conditions, although none have been proven to be completely effective at treating sleep apnea as of yet. 

Still, there is hope that an effective sleep apnea medication could be found at some point in the near future, as lots of time and money is being invested into research in this area.


Most of the drug therapy treatments being tested use either one or several existing medications to affect chemical changes in the brain in an effort to reduce or eliminate sleep apnea. One of the most promising medications seems to be mirtazapine, which is an antidepressant that works by increasing the levels of serotonin produced by the brain.


This drug has been shown to reduce the number of apneas a person experiences during the night and also keep them from feeling as tired in the morning. However, this drug has only been tested in very limited studies, and much more large scale testing will be required before it is ever approved as a sleep apnea treatment.

Medications for Sleep Apnea Sufferers to Avoid

As stated earlier, certain types of medications, specifically sedatives and narcotics, should be avoided by anyone with sleep apnea. Some of the most dangerous medications for sleep apnea sufferers to take are:

  • Opiates
Opiates are typically used as pain killers and include a wide group of medications including hydrocodone, morphine, methadone, and oxycontin. They have the effect of causing shallow breathing, pauses in breathing, and irregular breathing and heartbeat, all of which can be very dangerous for those with sleep apnea.

  • sleep apnea medicationBenzodiazepines
This group of medications is typically used as anti depressants, to relieve anxiety, as muscle relaxants and even to prevent seizures, and they include such medicines as Valium (diazepam). 

In the past, they were used to treat some forms of insomnia, but they have mostly been discontinued in this area due to their highly addictive nature. In general, they should not be used by anyone with sleep apnea, especially within a few hours of going to sleep.

  • Barbiturates
These medications are typically used to treat seizures among many other conditions. However their use has been drastically reduced in the past few decades as safer medications have been developed. If you have sleep apnea and are on one of the medications, you should ask your doctor for alternatives.

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