Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is a common disorder caused by not only an impaired upper airway anatomy (i.e. anatomically narrow/collapsible airway), but also by several non-anatomical factors. In this review, we summarise what is known about how each of the pathological factors that cause OSA vary according to disease severity as measured by the apnoea–hypopnoea index. Our synthesis of the available literature indicates that most of the key factors that cause OSA vary with disease severity. However, there is substantial heterogeneity such that the relative contribution of each of these traits varies both between patients and within different severities of disease. These differences likely contribute to variable efficacy of many non-continuous positive airway pressure treatments and inconsistencies in responses with regard to different OSA severities at baseline.