Even if you don’t know it, your spouse does. You snore. It’s not an accusation of wrongdoing, it’s just a fact. But, is it really just snoring? Do you stop breathing while sleeping too? If so, you have a much bigger problem than just a sleep-deprived spouse.

“Patients come in with a spouse, who usually rats them out for snoring,” says Dr. Sean Huggins, an Internal Medicine physician practicing at East Falls Internal Medicine.

In this case, however, ratting out a spouse could be lifesaving. When someone snores really loudly, it’s highly likely they have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition that can cause serious, even deadly, health conditions if left untreated.

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the throat muscles intermittently relax and block the airway during sleep. But loud snoring by itself does not always indicate OSA. Other symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, observed episodes of stopped breathing during sleep, abrupt awakening accompanied by gasping or choking, awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat, morning headache, difficulty concentrating during the day, depression or irritability, high blood pressure, and decreased libido.

Some of these symptoms can be explained by other medical conditions, so Dr. Huggins gives his patients a “sleepiness questionnaire.”

“Some of the questions are: Do you fall asleep during a TV show, after eating lunch, or as a passenger in a car? If they answer yes, it’s probably apnea,” he explains. “If it looks like apnea, tests are needed to confirm and to provide treatment.”

Further testing includes a sleep study, which can be done either in a clinic setting or at home. “The home studies are really convenient,” says Dr. Huggins. “Patients are in a familiar environment—their own room, their own bed. It makes a big difference.”

However, a home test uses a very simplified monitor, which only monitors breathing not actual sleep. It doesn’t always get the best results. An overnight clinic sleep study is more thorough because it is supervised by a live technician, and it monitors more than just breathing.

Once the diagnosis of OSA is confirmed, then it’s time to find the right treatment. Options for mild cases of apnea can be as simple as losing weight or using a dental device. Some people qualify for a sleep apnea implant, which is a nerve stimulator. However, states Dr. Huggins, “The majority of people with obstructive sleep apnea need a CPAP machine.”

And those machines can look kind of scary. They are also difficult to get used to, but the effort is worth the benefits.

“I tell my patients, ‘It will take one month to stop pulling it off at night. three months before you leave it on most of the time,’” Dr. Huggins says. “After that, patients refuse to go without their CPAP because they notice the benefits.”

Improved sleep, daytime alertness, and a better sex life are just three of the obvious benefits of consistent CPAP use. “More and more studies confirm that sleep affects every aspect of our lives,” explains Dr. Huggins. “The health benefits of treating sleep apnea are huge.”

People with OSA have a higher risk for stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, metabolic syndrome, low testosterone, depression, and a host of other health problems.

Early treatment of OSA is very important because, as Dr. Huggins points out, “Once someone with OSA develops a condition like pulmonary hypertension, there is irreversible damage, even if they use the CPAP. Some conditions can improve though.”

The snoring conversation, one that doesn’t involve yelling, can be a hard discussion for spouses to have. But it’s a really good discussion to have with your doctor.

If loud snoring is disrupting your life, if you’re tired all the time, contact East Falls Internal Medicine at (208) 535-4000.