Snoring may seem like a harmless habit with no consequences beyond annoying your bed partner. The reality is that it could signal a potentially serious health problem. More than 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition in which breathing stops repeatedly for more than 10 seconds at a time. These periods of interrupted breathing can happen hundreds of times during the night, resulting in dangerously low oxygen levels and an overworked heart.
While children and young adults can have OSA, your risk increases with age, and it is more common among smokers and men. It also increases if you are overweight, use alcohol or sedatives, have a thick neck or if your airway is narrowed, which can occur in children with enlarged adenoids or tonsils.
How can you tell the difference between simple snoring and sleep apnea? The following symptoms may indicate OSA, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Another person witnesses episodes of interrupted breathing as you sleep
- Gasping for breath after a period of not breathing
- Waking up with a headache or dry mouth
- Sleepiness during the day
- Difficulty staying focused
Studies show possible health repercussions of OSA include increased risk for high blood pressure, depression, glaucoma, dementia, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, stroke and heart attacks. Obstructive sleep apnea can even lead to sudden cardiac death.
If you think you or your bed partner might suffer from sleep apnea, ask a health professional about getting enrolled in a sleep study. Whether it is done in a lab or at home, a sleep study can track what is going on in your body while you slumber. The test monitors brain activity, breathing and oxygen levels, which helps indicate if there is something more serious taking place.
A diagnosis of sleep apnea can help get you on the path toward better health. Your doctor will likely talk to you about making lifestyle changes and may recommend the use of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) mask. The mask is not always easy to wear, but newer models are designed to be quieter, more comfortable and better-fitting. Other treatment options are available too. A good place to start is a conversation with your doctor to find a solution that’s right for you.