We all know people who snore. Many of us may even snore ourselves. Most people consider snoring to be an unfortunate role of the genetic dice – disruptive to the sleep of those within earshot, but mostly benign to the snorer. Unfortunately, that is simply not true. Snoring in children and adults is almost always a symptom of a potentially bigger problem. It is a warning signal that something in the airway is not right.
Many years ago, I noticed that my own husband was snoring very heavily at night, and that it seemed to be affecting his ability to breath correctly during sleep. The pauses between the end of one breath or snore and the next were extremely long, and when he did resume breathing again it often began with a choke or a gasp. As it turns out, my husband wasn’t simply snoring, he was suffering from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
OSA is a potentially fatal condition where the throat closes completely during sleep and all oxygen intake is cut off for seconds or minutes at a time. Anyone can have OSA, including children. My personal experience with my husband began my journey into dental sleep medicine more than 15 years ago, and I am happy to report that his condition is now successfully being controlled with the combination of a CPAP machine and a dental sleep appliance.
Snoring doesn’t always mean that a person is suffering from OSA. It can be a temporary condition – allergies, sinus infections, severe colds and flus can all include snoring as a side-effect of congestion and inflammation. Snoring can also develop as the result of a chronic condition – obesity and chronic systemic inflammatory conditions can both lead to changes in the throat tissues that make it impossible for the body to hold the airway completely open during sleep. Sometimes the issue is purely developmental – the three-dimensional relationship between the soft palate, tongue, and bite may be unbalanced. None of these snoring examples are normal or healthy for the body, however, and none of them should be ignored.
Snoring on its own may not always be a permanent or serious condition, but in combination with other symptoms, the likelihood of OSA increases dramatically. Waking up coughing, snorting, or gasping for air are all potential symptoms of OSA. Frequent dreams of drowning or choking are also common in people with OSA. And almost everyone suffering from OSA experiences a chronic level tiredness during the day. Many individuals turn to chemical sleep aids to help, but alcohol, sleep medication, and other central nervous system depressants are extremely dangerous for people with OSA.
Our bodies are amazing communicators, and when we don’t listen to early warning signals, they tend to keep screaming louder until we do. Snoring is no exception. Not every snore is an indication of a permanent or severe disorder. But chronic snoring that increases in loudness and severity, is accompanied by regular daytime sleepiness and/or other chronic conditions may be an indication that OSA is present and should be taken very seriously. Left untreated, it will only get worse.
This month, in our new Airway Series, I’m explaining even more about snoring, how it relates to other health conditions, and why you should take it seriously in yourself and the people you love. I hope that you will share What’s Snoring Got To Do With It? with anyone you know who snores chronically and encourage them to have a sleep screening. You could help save their life.