When Snoring Becomes a Warning Sign

dancing nose with a megaphone


A sleep specialist weighs in on whether snoring is simply a nuisance or a potential sign of a serious health condition.

Have you been awoken in the middle of the night by someone who sounds like they’re sawing down timber in a forest? While snoring often prompts jokes or maybe a sleep divorce, it can also be a sign of a potentially more serious underlying condition.

We’re talking about obstructive sleep apnea, simply known as OSA, a disorder in which your breathing repeatedly stops and restarts throughout the night as you rest. Sleep specialist Raj Dasgupta, MD, says people with this condition can stop breathing for up to 10 seconds, which is “a major red flag” when it comes to your overall health. 

If left untreated, he says the breathing disorder can also lead to hypertension, stroke, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the muscle tissue of the heart), heart failure, diabetes, obesity, and heart attacks. Though not life-threatening, it can also lead to erectile dysfunction in men. 

We break down some of the common causes and symptoms, plus why post-menopausal women are more at risk for an underlying sleep disorder.

Is it snoring or sleep apnea?

Snoring is often recognized by the harsh, rattling noises that can range from light and barely audible to heavy and disruptive (not a sound that’s enjoyable to wake up to). The noise has to do with a blockage in your throat that causes your muscles to vibrate. Unfortunately, many people can relate to hearing, or creating, this cacophony — as many 90 million Americans snore at some point in their lives, according to Yale Medicine. 

While everyone snores from time to time — maybe after having some sangria the night before — it’s important to recognize when it has the potential to indicate a potentially life-threatening medical condition. Roughly 30 million people in the U.S. have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), but only 6 million get a diagnosis, and the condition doesn’t always have the same symptoms from person to person. 

“You can snore like an angry lion and not have obstructive sleep apnea, and you may even have obstructive sleep apnea without much snoring,” Dr. Dasgupta tells KCM. 

Obstructive sleep apnea symptoms 

So how do you know if you have sleep apnea? Dr. Dasgupta says a good indicator is that your snoring is accompanied by the signs and symptoms below. If these sound familiar, he recommends getting checked out by a doctor. 

  • Excessive napping (anything over 20 minutes, according to Dr. Dasgupta)
  • Morning headaches 
  • Feeling fatigued even after getting a full night’s rest
  • Mood changes, like increased irritability 
  • Decreased libido
  • Weight gain 
  • Memory and concentration issues 
  • Nocturia (two or more urinations per night)
  • Pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Gasping and choking noises 

What causes obstructive sleep apnea?

There are several risk factors that can lead to obstructive sleep apnea. While you can reduce some (weight or nasal congestion) via behavioral changes, others (age and gender) aren’t within your control. Here are some to be mindful of: 

  • Excess weight: Studies show that approximately two-thirds of people with OSA weigh above what’s considered healthy for their stature. 
  • Smoking: Cigarette smoking causes irritation in the nose and throat, often causing it to become swollen. This in turn can reduce airflow and make it harder to breathe, prompting to the condition. 
  • Age: While the risk of OSA increases as you get older, the good news is that it starts to decrease in your 60s and 70s, according to the Mayo Clinic.
  • Menopause: “Once menopause hits and estrogen goes away, you’re losing a lot of muscle tone, so women are gonna have a much higher risk for having OSA later in life,” says Dr. Dasgupta. 
  • Gender: Snoring occurs in roughly 57 percent of men and 40 percent of women.
  • Neck circumference: Having a neck thicker than 16 inches for women or 17 inches for men puts you at a greater risk for OSA because it can make your airways more narrow and lead to breathing issues. 
  • Alcohol: Having a beer or some wine relaxes your throat muscles, temporarily causing snoring or obstructive sleep apnea in some cases.
  • Genetics: If your dad or family member had OSA, chances are you will too. 
  • Physical characteristics: One of the most obvious ones is a smaller lower jaw, an unusually large tongue, or a longer and thicker soft palate. A deviated septum — or when the cartilage and bone that separates the nasal cavity is off-center — could also be a risk factor. 

Obstructive sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment 

The good news is that diagnosing a potential sleep disorder has come a long way in the last few decades. Instead of having to spend an uncomfortable night at a sleep laboratory hooked up to a bunch of wires, you can opt for portable at-home tests for sleep apnea. This includes the WatchPAT, which has been approved by the Food & Drug Administration and uses finger-based physiology that offers a 98 percent success rate in detection. 

There’s also what’s known as a STOP-BANG questionnaire: STOP stands for snoring, tiredness, observed, pressure, and pressure, while BANG refers to body mass, age, neck size, and gender. By going down this list of factors and symptoms, Dr. Dasgupta tells us that doctors can easily rule out sleep apnea and other serious disorders. 

Getting a diagnosis for OSA doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll never be able to get a quiet night’s rest again. There are a number of ways to treat sleep apnea, including maintaining a certain weight or sleeping on your side. (If you’re looking for a creative way to help with this, Dr. Dasgupta recommends sleeping in a T-shirt with a tennis ball attached to your back.) In more severe cases, a doctor may recommend using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that pushes a steady stream of oxygen into your lungs through a mask. 

“It’s important to realize that effective treatment options exist,” he says, “and that there is hope for getting restful sleep again.”

The information provided on this site isn’t intended as medical advice, and shouldn’t replace professional medical treatment. Consult your doctor with any serious health concerns.