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Sleep Health

Health Risks of Snoring and Sleep Apnea

Simply put, snoring is the sound caused by vibrations in the respiratory system’s upper airways due to partially obstructed air movement while sleeping – and it is common.

All too often, snoring gets written off as a mere nuisance by your partner, your cat, your dog, and even your neighbour, who has to listen to you “sawing logs” all night long.

It’s easy to believe that snoring is relatively harmless.

“Approximately 24% of men and 17% of women snore regularly”.

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And yes, in many cases snoring can be nothing more than an annoyance for your partner. However, there could be some serious potential risks connected with frequent snoring.

In our article, What Snoring Means, we explain the mechanics of snoring and how the muscles in the upper airway relax, and the soft tissue in your throat begins to vibrate when you breathe. With snoring and sleep apnea intrinsically linked, ignoring the risks could lead to more significant consequences than just being tired.

The Causes & Complications Of Snoring & Sleep Apnea

The tendency to develop snoring & sleep apnea occurs more easily due to:

woman on scales

  • Weight – Your weight can play a large role in whether you snore or are a higher risk of being directly linked to sleep apnea. If you are overweight, you are more than likely to have an excess of built-up fatty tissues in your throat as well as poor muscle tone leading to a restriction in airflow as the upper respiratory system’s pathway is narrowed or pinched off during sleep.  
“People who are overweight or obese are more likely to have sleep apnea than those that maintain a healthy weight”.

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  • Smoking – smoke is an irritant to the lungs, nasal passages, throat muscles, and oesophagus, causing inflammation & fluid retention, particularly in the upper airways that can impede airflow.
  • Medications & Surgery – medications such as sedatives, narcotic analgesics, and general anaesthesia all aid in relaxing your upper airways that can further complicate sleep apnea.
  • Frequent alcohol use – alcohol relaxes the muscles in the body, and this includes the throat muscles as well, which may relax to the point of blocking the airway during sleep.
  • Age – As you’re probably aware, as your body ages, you gradually lose muscle tone, requiring more effort to keep your body defined. These processes also occur in the throat and tongue muscles, causing the muscles there to relax and fall back into your airways, causing obstructions.

Parapharyngeal space

  • Men – in general, sleep apnea affects more men than women due to having longer and more collapsible airways. They also tend to have increased parapharyngeal fat (excess fatty tissue around the neck)
  • Menopause – perimenopausal women, tend to put on weight in the hips and the lower body, instead of the belly. As women transition into menopause, hormones change and women tend to start looking like men, in terms of where the weight gets put on. This transition time is also a time to pay attention to the risks of sleep apnea, as women begin to catch up to men in the rates of apnea after menopause.
“As women transition into menopause, hormones change and women start looking like men in terms of where the weight gets put on”.

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  • Nasal and sinus problems – Seasonal allergies and sinus infections can cause swelling of the nasal passages making breathing difficult and snoring likely. A deviated septum can also cause snoring due to the imbalance in the sizes of breathing passages. A severely deviated septum may even lead to sleep apnea.
  • Sleep Posture – Sleeping on your back puts you at a higher likelihood of snoring and the tissues at the back of the throat to readily fall back and cause partial or complete blockage of the airways. To avoid snoring, try changing your sleeping posture by sleeping on your side.
  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids – These are the leading cause of obstructive sleep apnea in children and affect adults who never had a tonsillectomy when they were younger.
  • Craniofacial abnormalities – some people can be genetically predisposed to having a narrower throat or may have an enlarged tongue that falls back into their airway. This genetic trait can also be passed down in families.
What Happens If Sleep Apnea Is Left Untreated

It is important to treat sleep apnea because it can have long-term consequences for your health, and the true risk is from damage done over time.

The most evident symptoms may look like the MMMD effect:

  • memory problems
  • morning migraines
  • mood swings
  • depression

According to Jonathan Jun, M.D., a pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist from John Hopkins Centre for Sleep, there is a greater risk of serious health conditions if a patient is overweight and their sleep apnea is uncontrolled. These health risks are:

Cardiovascular problems 

  • untreated obstructive sleep apnea can cause a strain on your heart as sudden drops in oxygen levels that occur during OSA increases your blood pressure.
  • high blood pressure (hypertension) increases the likelihood of several heart diseases and complications, such as:
  • arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythms)
  • coronary artery disease
  • heart attack
  • heart failure
  • stroke

Whether or not you need treatment for sleep apnea, depends on a few factors. These include the severity of OSA, symptoms of sleepiness and other health conditions. If you have risk factors for heart disease, your local GP may choose to treat you for mild and severe sleep apnea.

Are you or a loved one suffering from the symptoms of sleep apnea? Take our sleep apnea quiz to assess your risk. Talk to your doctor and find out more about testing for sleep apnea. 

This blog post contains general information about medical conditions and potential treatments. It is not medical advice. If you have any medical questions, please consult your doctor.