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Can snoring lead to serious medical problems? What should we do?

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snoringSnoring occurs when something obstructs airflow during sleep. When air squeezes past the obstruction, it makes a whistling or rattling sound. Potential obstructions range from medical conditions such as rhinitis to anatomical obstructions, including polyps, enlarged tonsils or excessive fat in the neck.

Some snorers produce a noise during sleep, but their bodies are not medically affected by their snoring. In other cases, however, snorers could have obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). Where obstruction is so severe that air to the lungs is greatly reduced and the heart and lung muscles must work harder for an adequate oxygen supply. The lung muscles become so tired that they take a break and simply stop breathing. A non-breathing period that lasts more than 10 seconds is called an apnea.

OSA has many undesirable effects. Oxygen levels in the blood drop and there may be inadequate oxygen supply to the brain and other organs, which can lead to brain suffocation adversely affecting the body’s performance. To compensate for lowered oxygen levels, the heart increases its rate, cardiac output and blood pressure. Left uncorrected, OSA could increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke.

If your husband is a severe snorer, this probably indicates that there is a significant obstruction somewhere in his airway and he should have a detailed evaluation by an ENT specialist to determine the severity, cause of the problem and appropriate treatment.

Treatment depends entirely on the cause of the snoring or OSA. Just as there is a wide range of potential obstructions, there is almost as wide a range of treatments, including medical and surgical options. A machine-assisted breathing device called CPAP can also be used.

A sleep study called a polysomnogram should be done to determine the severity of snoring or OSA. This is a study where a person’s vital signs, oxygen saturation, and severity of apnea are recorded during a night’s sleep. This study can be done in a hospital or in the comfort of your own home.

Family observations are also invaluable for the ENT specialist’s diagnosis. Spouses of OSA sufferers often report that the snorer sometimes seems to stop breathing, then gasps or chokes before heaving in a breath. Video recordings are also very useful.