Can Sleep Apnea Affect your Eyes?

Editor: Dr. Russel Lazarus, Published March 18, 2021

Sleep apnea can affect not only your physical health, but can have serious consequences for your eyes and vision too.

If you have sleep apnea, it may be affecting your eyes. Glaucoma and dry eye are just two eye conditions that sleep apnea can cause. Schedule an eye exam to learn more about how sleep apnea affects your eyes and what you can do to protect eyes.

Sleep apnea has been found to not only cause health problems such as high blood pressure and heart failure, but also serious eye problems. 

How common is sleep apnea?

According to the National Sleep Foundation over 60 million US adults have a sleep disorder, and obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most prevalent sleep disorders.

Approximately 3-7% of men and 2-5% of women have sleep apnea, impacting more than 18 million Americans. Worldwide, over 100 million people suffer from sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that involves an involuntary cessation of breathing while sleeping.

Sleep apnea is a condition marked by abnormal breathing during sleep. People with sleep apnea have multiple extended pauses in breath when they sleep.

These temporary breathing lapses cause lower-quality sleep and affect the body’s supply of oxygen, leading to potentially serious health consequences.

Sleep apnea and dry eye

Those with sleep apnea are more likely to have dry eyes caused by ocular irritation, abnormal tear break-up time, and an increased upper and lower lid laxity.

One of the most common treatment options for sleep apnea is a CPAP machine. These machines supply constant and steady air pressure. Many patients who use the machine experience air leaks, causing a constant airflow over the eyes that results in eye irritation, occasional swelling, and dryness.

Dry eyes can cause discomfort and can cause serious eye problems. If not addressed the side effects of the CPAP machines can become chronic.

If you are experiencing dry eyes due to your CPAP mask, contact your eye doctor. Your eye doctor will most likely suggest using thicker, non-preserved artificial tear drops or ointment, which you apply before bed.

It is important for the drops or ointment to be thick and more viscous so that it stays in the eye, protecting it all night. The artificial tear needs to be preservative-free since it will be used every night. This treatment is a simple solution to your dry eye.

Sleep apnea and glaucoma

People with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS), are approximately 10 times more likely to develop glaucoma.

It is believed that the connection between sleep apnea and glaucoma is due to the drop in oxygen levels in the blood that occurs when you stop breathing. Low oxygen concentration in the blood may contribute to the degradation of the optic nerve, potentially leading to glaucoma.

Are eye exams important?

Yes. If you have sleep apnea it is essential to schedule appointments with an eye doctor for regular eye exams. 

During a routine eye exam, your eye doctor will check the pressure in your eye to determine if you are at risk of developing dry eyes or even a sight-threatening condition such as glaucoma.

Early detection is key, as glaucoma causes irreversible vision loss and possible blindness.

Although ocular irritation may occur, it is advised to continue using the CPAP machine, as it can prevent sometimes life-threatening impacts of sleep apnea.

If it appears that eye problems and dryness are developing as a result of sleep apnea, or the CPAP use, visit an eye doctor for guidance on how to best manage dry eyes or prevent a serious eye condition, such as glaucoma.