Is it just snoring or a sleep disorder?

If your partner complains about your snoring or you about theirs, there may be more to it than meets the ear. In fact, snoring can sometimes be a warning sign of a serious health condition. 

"There's a difference in types of snoring," says Ricardo Rivera-Morales, Medical Director for Parrish Healthcare Sleep Center. "Sometimes it's just annoying or temporary. That's called 'simple snoring' or 'primary snoring.' But there are more severe types of snoring that can signal a sleep disorder, and these may pose definite medical risks."  

Snoring doesn't necessarily mean you have a sleep disorder, just as your sleep problems may not involve snoring. But in some cases, the two are dangerously linked. Here's what you should know.  

Sleep disorders 101  

There are many types of sleep disorders:1  

Insomnia – This sleep disorder is characterized by having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep. About a third of adults complain of this issue from time to time, but only about one in 10 have what's called "chronic insomnia," which happens at least three times a week over a span of three months at a minimum.  

Parasomnia - This condition is actually a group of sleep disorders that includes all sorts of unusual behaviors during sleep. This can involve binge eating while partially asleep, wild movements during the deep sleep cycle, sleepwalking, sleep terrors in which you awaken in great fear, bedwetting or talking in your sleep.  

Hypersomnia - People with this condition feel sleepy at random times or may feel the need to sleep excessively. Narcolepsy is one form of hypersomnia in which people feel tired all the time, and some may fall asleep at random times — even while walking, eating or driving.  

Circadian rhythm disorders - Circadian rhythm refers to the natural sleep-wake cycle and is related to daylight and darkness. People with this type of disorder have trouble staying awake during the day and are active during the night, may go to sleep several hours late and wake up late or have no predictable sleep cycle at all.  

Sleep apnea - This is a serious condition, one that not only involves snoring but causes breathing to stop during sleep. Here, the sleeper relaxes to the point that the throat closes up on itself, blocking the airway. Sleep apnea makes you unable to breathe for 10 seconds or longer, and in the worst cases, this can happen hundreds of times a night.  

Even young children can suffer from sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, and that can impact their attentiveness, performance at school and overall health.   

Why we snore   

Here are some of the reasons people snore.   

Extra throat tissue - This can happen if you are pregnant, overweight or simply have a large neck.   

Allergies and nasal congestion. Whenever you have trouble passing air through your nose, it can result in snoring. That can happen due to a cold, hay fever or even a deviated septum.   

Alcohol, smoking and certain medications - These may cause your throat muscles to relax to an extreme degree.   

Aging and gender - Men are more likely to snore than women, and snoring tends to worsen with age.2   

However, while not all snoring means you have obstructive sleep apnea, these factors can contribute to it.    

Sleep apnea   

When snoring becomes severe, you may grunt or gasp and even stop breathing multiple times a night. Your partner will probably know if you have sleep apnea. It can be terrifying to awaken and realize the person next to you has stopped breathing, even though his or her chest muscles are still trying to move air in and out. A poke in the ribs usually results in a deep breath, but even so, the resulting sleep disturbance can cause serious long-term health issues like stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.3   

If you sleep alone, however, you may not be aware you have this problem — except to note you're unusually tired or irritable during the day, have trouble concentrating or remembering things, or are just generally sleepy all the time.   

Either way, it's probably time to see your doctor for a sleep disorder evaluation.  

"Sleep disorders can be serious business," says Rivera-Morales for Parrish Healthcare Sleep Center. "If you think you or a loved one suffers from this condition, don't delay. Seek medical help."   

While light or occasional snoring may not be cause for alarm, if you're experiencing prolonged periods of non-breathing, deep snoring and chronic tiredness, contact your physician. There are remedies for sleep apnea, and you can avoid putting your health at risk because relief is available.    

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