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Wake-up call: Is your loved one’s snoring unsafe?

June 18, 2014
Snoring may be a sign of sleep apnea

Sleeping beside someone who snores loudly can be a challenge, especially if you are a light sleeper. Most people can get used to their partner’s snoring over time and it’s usually not a cause for concern.

But when loud snoring is coupled with long pauses in breathing and followed by gasps for air, it’s time to pay attention.  It may be sleep apnea, a potentially serious disorder that can lead to significant health problems.

“Spousal or partner observation is one of the most common ways of discovering sleep apnea,” says Dr. Roger Crumley, a UCI Health sleep disorder expert and professor emeritus of otolaryngology-head & neck surgery at the UC Irvine School of Medicine.

Apnea literally means without breath. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when there is a physical obstruction — often in the nose, tongue or throat — that prevents the sleeper from breathing. While not all snorers have sleep apnea, people with the condition are characterized by significant prolonged interruptions of breathing and “heroic” or loud snoring.

Though you may think your partner’s ear-piercing snores are affecting only you, the truth is he or she is not getting a good night’s sleep, either. OSA reduces what is known as “restorative sleep,” or the time in which the brain refreshes itself. Those with OSA get virtually no rest at night and as a result, they may not be able to optimally perform activities the next day.

Studies have shown that sleep apnea may reduce a person’s IQ after several nights of sleep deprivation.  

People who suffer from sleep apnea may feel excessively tired during the day and fall asleep at work or behind the wheel, says Crumley. “They may feel irritated, sad or depressed, and could also have increased appetite and no energy for exercise, which makes it harder for them to control their weight,” he adds. This also creates a “vicious cycle” in which the affected person gains weight, making sleep apnea worse.

Waking up with morning headaches, dry mouth, unexplained blood pressure elevation, or a sore throat are also signs of sleep apnea.

What causes sleep apnea?

  • Obesity, or when a person’s body mass index (BMI) is greater than 30.
  • Sleeping on one’s back (the supine position), which is highly correlated with OSA
  • Enlarged tonsils
  • Large uvula—the small piece of soft tissue that can be seen dangling over the back of the tongue

Your partner should visit a doctor if he or she:

  • Snores loudly and stops breathing between snores
  • Is abnormally sleepy during daytime
  • Has unexplained high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Has unexplained morning headaches

A path to uninterrupted sleep

There are different options to treat sleep apnea:

  • OSA is often treated with a mask device called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).  It delivers pressurized air to the nose and mouth, allowing airflow through the nasal passages and upper airway.
  • Dental appliances that reposition the lower jaw and tongue to open the upper airway have been helpful to some patients with mild sleep apnea, or who snore but do not have apnea.

People with sleep apnea can help ease the symptoms by:

  • Avoiding the use of alcohol, tobacco and sleeping pills
  • Losing weight
  • Using pillows and other devices to help sleep in a side position. The prone position (sleeping on your stomach) is preferred.

“If all else fails, there are surgical options that are used to enlarge the airway opening in the palate and tonsillar area,” Crumley says.

For more information about sleep apnea, call UCI Health Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) Services at 714-456-7017.

— Camila Hernandez, UCI Health Marketing & Communications