We examined the influence of gender on the polysomnographic features of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in a retrospective study of 830 patients with OSA diagnosed by overnight polysomnography (PSG). The severity of OSA was determined from the apnea- hypopnea index (AHI) for total sleep time (AHI(TST)), and was classified as mild (5 to 25 events/h), moderate (26 to 50 events/h), and severe (> 50/events/h). Differences in OSA during different stages of sleep were assessed by comparing the AHI during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) (AHI(NREM)) and rapid eye movement (REM) (AHI(REM)) sleep and calculating the "REM difference" (AHI(REM) - AHI(NREM)). Additionally, each overnight polysomnographic study was classified as showing one of three mutually exclusive types of OSA: (1) mild OSA, which occurred predominantly during REM sleep (REM OSA); (2) OSA of any severity, which occurred predominantly in the supine position (S OSA); or (3) OSA without a predominance in a single sleep stage or body position (A OSA). The mean AHI(TST) for men was significantly higher than that for women (31.8 +/- 1.0 versus 20.2 +/- 1.5 events/h, p < 0. 001). The male-to-female ratio was 3.2:1 for all OSA patients, and increased from 2.2:1 for patients with mild OSA to 7.9:1 for those with severe OSA. Women had a lower AHI(NREM) than did men (14.6 +/- 1.6 versus 29.6 +/- 1.1 events/h, p < 0.001), but had a similar AHI(REM) (42.7 +/- 1.6 versus 39.9 +/- 1.2 events/h). Women had a significantly higher REM difference than did men (28.1 +/- 1.5 versus 10.3 +/- 1.1 events/h, p < 0.01). REM OSA occurred in 62% of women and 24% of men with OSA. S OSA occurred almost exclusively in men. We conclude that: (1) OSA is less severe in women because of milder OSA during NREM sleep; (2) women have a greater clustering of respiratory events during REM sleep than do men; (3) REM OSA is disproportionately more common in women than in men; and (4) S OSA is disproportionately more common in men than in women. These findings may reflect differences between the sexes in upper airway function during sleep in patients with OSA.