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James K. Walsh, PhD, St. Luke's Hospital

Snoring and sleep apnea affect women, too

The stereotype that snoring is a men's issue is false. Many women snore, and although sleep apnea was at one time thought to be rare in women, the latest evidence shows women account for one in three people who suffer from it.

Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition in which you experience one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. It occurs when the muscles in your throat relax, and as you inhale, the throat narrows or closes completely. As air flows through the narrow airway, the throat tissues vibrate and produce snoring.

Sleep apnea leads to disturbed sleep, daytime sleepiness and high blood pressure. There is growing evidence that it may also contribute to heart attacks, diabetes and stroke.

Of particular concern for women is that pregnancy increases the risk of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea doubles a woman's risk for gestational diabetes and quadruples her risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension.

The most common treatment for sleep apnea involves wearing a mask connected to a machine that blows air through the mask and into the nose and throat, providing an air pressure "splint" to hold open the throat. These CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines have greatly increased the quality of sleep and life for many people.

Unfortunately, CPAP is not tolerated by about one-third of the people who need it, mostly because it is uncomfortable. Some women will not use it because they feel unattractive wearing the mask.

The good news is that a new, FDA-approved treatment device for sleep apnea offers what could be a more comfortable option. The device is held in place with adhesive over the nostrils, and early research indicates that it is effective for many, but not all, with sleep apnea.

How do you know if you have sleep apnea? Ask the person you sleep next to if you snore or stop breathing during sleep. If you are overweight and have a neck circumference greater than 16 inches, your risk is increased. If you think you may have a sleep disorder, talk with your healthcare provider about testing and treatment.

James K. Walsh, PhD, is the executive director and senior scientist at St. Luke's Sleep Medicine and Research Center. Call 314-205-6026 or visit his Meet the Team page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 21, 2009.