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.
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, 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.
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 with a lighter stage of sleep. Even though you do not remember waking up many times during the night to a lighter sleep, you feel tired the next 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.
Problems in the structure of the nose may obstruct breathing. A crooked (deviated) septum or swollen turbinates 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.