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Being a little sleepy from time to time isn't unusual, especially after a short night or a lot of physical work. Drowsiness may also creep up on you after a heavy meal or when you've been sitting for awhile.

But you have to recognize when you're more than just a little sleepy.

There is a condition called sleep apnea that will leave you feeling exhausted even after a full night's sleep. This sleep disorder pulls you out of deep sleep over and over again, sometimes hundreds of times during the night.

There are several kinds of sleep apnea, but the most common one is obstructive sleep apnea. During sleep, the throat muscles and tongue relax, partially blocking the airway. When breathing stops, the sleeper awakens enough to pull air in with a snort or a gasp. These pauses in breathing, or apnea episodes, disturb deep, restorative sleep and reduce oxygen intake.

Often people with obstructive sleep apnea do not know they have it. They do not realize how much the sleep disorder is affecting them, and sometimes it takes a spouse, friend or coworker to point out their symptoms.

If someone has remarked how tired you always are, or if you often feel very sleepy during the day, it may be more than your work schedule. Ask yourself if you have other symptoms that might be pointing to obstructive sleep apnea:

  1. Difficulty with concentration or memory
  2. Difficulty performing daytime duties
  3. Irritability or depression
  4. Falling asleep easily during daytime hours
  5. Loud snoring or pauses in breathing during sleep

People with untreated sleep apnea are three times more likely to have an accident while driving. They may also develop other serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

If you think you might have obstructive sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. Several tests, including a sleep study, may be conducted to see if you do have obstructive sleep apnea or any other kind of sleep disorder.

If you're diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, there are several treatments. The most common and effective is the use of a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. A mask is worn over the nose during sleep and a continual flow of air is gently blown through the throat to keep it open.

As a driver, having undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea can be life threatening. Being very sleepy at the wheel puts you at greater risk for having an accident. Don't take that risk. Talk to your doctor if you think you might have sleep apnea.