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What Are Snoring and Sleep Apnea?

If you’ve ever had a stuffed-up nose, you know the feeling of trying to breathe through a very narrow passageway. This is what happens in your throat when you snore. While you sleep, structures in your throat partially block your air passage, making the passage narrow and hard to breathe through. If the entire passage becomes blocked and you can’t breathe at all, you have sleep apnea.

Cross section side view of head and neck. Arrows show air entering nose and mouth. Tongue and soft palate at back of throat partially block air from flowing into lungs. Wavy arrow into trachea shows snoring.


If your throat structures are too large or the muscles relax too much during sleep, the air passage may be partially blocked. As air from the nose or mouth passes around this blockage, the throat structures vibrate and rattle against each other, causing the familiar sound of snoring. At times, this sound can be so loud that snorers wake up others, or even themselves, during the night. Snoring gets worse as more and more of the air passage is blocked.

Cross section side view of head and neck. Arrows show air entering nose and mouth. Tongue and soft palate at back of throat block air from flowing into lungs.

Sleep Apnea

If the structures completely block the throat, air can’t flow to the lungs at all. This is called apnea (meaning “no breathing”). Since the lungs aren’t getting fresh air, the brain tells the body to wake up just enough to tighten the muscles and unblock the air passage. With a loud gasp, breathing begins again. This process may be repeated over and over again throughout the night, making your sleep fragmented and light. Even though you don’t remember waking up so many times during the night, you feel tired all day. The lack of sleep and fresh air can also strain your lungs, heart, and other organs, leading to problems such as high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke.

Front view cross section of structures in nose. Septum in middle is deviated to one side. Turbinates are swollen.
Air may not be able to move freely past a deviated septum or swollen turbinates.

Problems in the Nose and Jaw

Problems in the structure of the nose may obstruct breathing. A crooked (deviated) septum or swollen turbinates (curved, bony ridges covered by a thin membrane) can make snoring worse or lead to apnea. Also, a receding jaw may make the tongue sit too far back, so it’s more likely to block the airway when you’re asleep.



Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 5/15/2011
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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