March 6, 2007 -- Snoring is the stuff of sitcoms, sketch comedy and late nights tossing and turning between the sheets.
But it can also be a symptom of sleep apnea, a serious illness in which a person stops breathing while sleeping, sometimes hundreds of times a night.
Because it involves snoring, many women don't realize they might be at risk. But a new poll from the National Sleep Foundation found that as many as five out of every 100 women suffer from sleep apnea.
On "Good Morning America," Dr. Meir Kryger, who headed the poll, explained the condition and who should worry about it.
Kryger said people with sleep apnea repeatedly stop breathing while sleeping, every night and in every position. Sufferers may wake up with a sore throat or feel drowsy.
"What happens when you stop breathing is that your blood oxygen drops, so your brain has to wake up to start breathing again. That means a lot of patients go from awake to very light sleep, never getting into deep sleep," Kryger said. "You need deep sleep for restorative processes to occur, so you can feel refreshed and wide awake the next day."
Additional complications from low blood oxygen include high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythm or stroke.
Not Just a Problem for Men
Snoring is usually thought to be a male problem, but Kryger said that's simply not true.
"We see sleep apnea in men and women of all age groups, including children. But it used to be believed that women never snored… in fact, somewhere around 30 percent do," he said. "The stereotype is that sleep apnea is a disease of overweight, middle-aged men, and that means that thousands of women have gone untreated."
Kryger explained that being overweight can lead to sleep apnea.
"People who are obese are much more likely to have it. Somewhere around 60 percent of the people in this country are overweight or obese, so they are at risk," he said.
Just because someone snores doesn't mean he or she has sleep apnea -- not all snorers stop breathing. But Kryger said that silence between snores is usually an indication of the disease.
"Usually what your bed partner will notice is not the snoring noise, but the quiet between the snores -- that's when there's not any breathing. Generally anything longer than 10 seconds is significant," he said.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Sleep apnea is diagnosed in a sleep laboratory, and there are two main types of the condition: central, in which people stop making the effort to breathe repeatedly, and obstructive, in which the breathing passage collapses on itself when they try to breathe. Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of the two types.
In all cases, sleep apnea is treated with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine, which keeps the airway open and can even breathe for the sufferer.
"These days, the newer machines are portable and more convenient, which is great for business travelers," Kryger said. "Almost everyone knows someone who's on a machine -- if you know 100 people, 5 of them will have sleep apnea… it's like asthma. This is not a rare disease."
Kryger said that very mild cases of sleep apnea can go without treatment.
"If you stop breathing less than 15 times an hour and have no complications, the consensus is that you can go without treatment, " he said. "Other than that, you may need to be treated."
Usually, sleep apnea suffers have to be on CPAP machines indefinitely. But losing weight can help curb the condition.
"Since the main factor [of sleep apnea] is often obesity, it can go away if people lose weight," Kryger said. "You don't even have to lose all of the weight. If you have someone who weighs 250 pounds, sometimes 20 or 30 pounds will do it."