If you snore — or are kept awake by someone who does — you’re not alone. A whopping 90 million Americans gasp, snort and rasp through the night, according to the Sleep Apnea Association. The noise level can be almost as loud as a chainsaw.

There are a whole bunch of reasons why people snore, including: a stuffy, nose from allergies or a cold; a deviated septum (a condition where the thin wall dividing the nostrils leans more to one side); taking medications that make us drowsy, such as antihistamines or sleeping pills; drinking alcohol right before bed; and anatomical anomalies, such as a big tongue or narrow throat. 

Another, often overlooked, cause is a serious condition called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). About one in four snorers suffer from OSA. The reason: tissue in the back of the throat relaxes or becomes lax, creating a narrowing at the opening of the throat. Being overweight is one of the main factors for a narrowing of the throat due to flabby throat tissue. 

A person with sleep apnea may wake up a few times per hour and up to hundreds of times per night. As a result, a person will feel really tired during the day. They’re also at risk car accidents, high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke and diabetes. If you snore it’s really important to try to pinpoint the cause with your doctor. Eighty percent of people with moderate to severe OSA haven’t been diagnosed, and so aren’t getting treatment.

Sleep apnea checklist

If you answer “yes” to three or more of these questions you may be at risk for OSA and should see your doc as soon as possible. 

1. Have you been told that you snore? (The louder you snore, the greater your odds for severe OSA, say researchers from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, who compared snoring intensity and OSA risk in 1,643 women and men.)

2. Are you often tired during the day?

3. Do you know if you stop breathing, or has anyone witnessed you stop breathing while you are asleep?

4. Do you have high blood pressure or are you on medication to control high blood pressure?

5. Is your body mass index higher than 35 kg/m2? (BMI compares your height and weight to determine if you’re overweight. Find out yours using the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s BMI calculator.)

6. Are you age 50 or older?

7. Is your neck circumference greater than 17 inches (for men) or greater than 16 inches (for women)

8. Are you male?

Other warning signs for OSA include: waking up at night feeling confused and getting up frequently to use the bathroom; waking up feeling tired, with a dry mouth or headache; difficulty concentrating or remembering things, and feeling irritable, depressed or having mood swings. 

If a doctor suspects OSA, she’ll encourage an overnight stay at a sleep lab to get an official diagnosis. A technician will attach monitoring sensors on various areas of the body to measure sleep disturbances, blood oxygen level, blood pressure and more.

If you have OSA, your doctor may recommend a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine for sleep. It uses a small, quiet compressor to push air through a mask and into your nose, keeping airways open at night.

CPAP is considered the gold-standard treatment for OSA. When researchers from Australia’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital reviewed 36 CPAP studies involving 1,718 people, they found that users reduced daytime sleepiness by nearly 50 percent. Users also reduced the number of sleep interruptions by eight per hour, and significantly increased the amount of energizing oxygen in their bloodstream. CPAP treatment can also help lower previously untreatable high blood pressure. And according to a 2009 study in the journal CHEST, this breathing device helped 12 golfers with OSA improve their game. 

Sari Harrar is an award-winning health, medicine and science journalist whose work appears in Dr. Oz The Good Life magazine, Good Housekeeping, O--Oprah Magazine, Organic Gardening and other publications.