Risk of Sleep Apnea with Prescription Medications

Risk of Sleep Apnea with Prescription Medications

There are a number of prescription medications which can increase the risk of sleep apnea. These medications can have a huge effect on sleep architecture, breathing, and muscle tone. Let’s discuss some of the most common prescription medication and their effect on sleep and breathing.


The opiates, also known as opioids or narcotics, are a class of medications which are commonly used for pain relief, diarrhea or cough. One of their most common side effects is sleepiness. However, opiates can also impact your breathing. These medications bind to various opioid receptors within the nervous and can trigger breathing breaks, shallow breaths, and irregular breathing. Moreover, they can also increase the risk of central sleep apnea. Some of the most frequent opiates include Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Fentanyl, Mepridine, Methadone, Morphine, Sufentanil, Codeine, Propoxyphene, Buprenorphine, and Pentazocine.


Benzodiazepines are a class of medications which are mainly used to relieve anxiety. Some of these medications work as muscle relaxants and can be used to treat seizures. Benzodiazepines can also trigger sleepiness. Some of the most common benzodiazepine medications include Alprazolam, Chlordiazepoxide, Clonazepam, Clorazepate, Diazepam, Lorazepam, Quazepam, Midazolam, Estazolam, Flurazepam, Temazepam, and Triazolam. These medications act near the GABA receptor on the surface of cells, which causes chloride to move more freely across their channels. Even though some of them have been used for the treatment of insomnia, they have been replaced by safer medications that don't increase the risk of breathing disturbances or sleep apnea.


Barbiturates are a class of medications which used to be given for sedation, but because of a number of side effects, such as the risk of dependence and withdrawal, they have largely been dropped off as sleep aids. In some cases, they can even cause coma in toxic doses. Some of the barbiturates include Amobarbital, Phenobarbital, Pentobarbital, Secobarbital, and Thiopental. These medications act as the sodium and potassium transporters in cells, which can hinder the reticular activating system in the brainstem. As a result, they can cause sedation, coma and can have huge effects on breathing. You should be using these medications as sleep aids to treat insomnia.

How Do These Medications Affect Breathing?

These medications can suppress your breathing and make your upper airway more collapsible. As a result, they make sleep-disordered breathing worse and trigger sleep apnea. So, a person who takes one of these medications experiences a suppressed level of consciousness and cannot protect the airway adequately. Consequently, a person might experience suffocation, disrupted breathing, or even death. You might have heard about these medications from the news as many celebrities have died of overdose deaths.

These medications impact your sleep architecture and cause disrupted sleep even while you remain unconscious. Hence, if you have sleep apnea and take some of these medications, make sure you are monitored for side effects. Always discuss these risks with your doctor to determine if the benefits of the medication outweigh the potential for harm in your situation.