Announcer: It's extremely common and it's often dismissed as nothing more than an annoying habit, but snoring can be a symptom of a serious health problem. If someone you know snores loudly and if at times they seem to stop breathing, they may have a sleep disturbance known as obstructive sleep apnea. It's estimated that more than 15 million Americans suffer from it. Three-quarters of them are men. But only one in 10 people with sleep apnea is actually diagnosed.
Barbara Peck: When John was snoring, I dreaded going to bed. I guess the best way to describe it is window-rattling. I mean, it was incredible. I had never heard anything like it. It was becoming a sleep problem for me, a major one.
Announcer: John Peck's wife, Barbara, suffered for years because of her husband's snoring.
John Peck: You actually did go down to the basement.
Barbara Peck: I went two levels below.
John Peck: To get away.
Barbara Peck: To get away.
John Peck: That's got sausage and Italian seasoning --
Announcer: Snoring is commonplace in John's family, so he never thought that it might indicate a serious health problem.
John Peck: But the thing that I noticed most was when I woke up in the morning, I was tired, pure tired. So I'd hit the coffee right away. [talking on phone at office] Maybe I could see him then. If I can't see him, maybe Bob can.
Announcer: John attributed his ongoing fatigue to the stress of his job as a chemical dependency counselor.
John Peck: Around two or three o'clock in the afternoon, I'd just [nods, closes eyes] you know, like that. Just tired. I didn't know what it was, really. I thought it might have been depression. All kinds of things went through my head.
Announcer: But in his 50s, things started to get worse. One night he woke up alone at 2 a.m., unable to breathe.
John Peck: I couldn't get air in or out, either way. And so I knew I was in trouble and I got up, started going for the phone because I was going to call 911. And by the time I got to the phone, I realized that I was getting a little bit in and I was kind of like [makes choking sounds]. And by that time there were tears going down my face.
Announcer: Finally, John checked into a sleep clinic and was diagnosed with sleep apnea.
Dr. John Trusheim: John is a fairly typical sleep apnea patient. He's somewhat obese, six feet in height, 240 pounds, placing him at risk. His family noted the classic symptoms -- snoring, gasping for breath.
Announcer: Dr. John Trusheim is a neurologist at the Fairview Southdale Sleep Center in Minnesota.
Dr. John Trusheim: And his study is very typical as we see it during the night -- not breathing for periods of 10, 15, 20 seconds, some people even over a minute.
Announcer: John's sleep test revealed that throughout the night his breathing was cut off by the back of his throat collapsing in on itself, obstructing his airway. This was happening at least 20 times every hour.
Dr. John Trusheim: The consequences of this would be tiredness in the daytime and a high risk of other medical issues such as hypertension, heart disease and stroke. The incidence of sudden death, say at night, is small in the younger person. When you're talking about people in their 50s or 60s, though, the risk of heart attack or stroke at night is not trivial.
John Peck: And in five minutes, it's up to full speed.
Announcer: After many years of living with sleep apnea, in just one night John was diagnosed and given a solution to his problem. How does this all work?
John Peck: Well, this is the air pump right here.
Announcer: Like most moderate cases of sleep apnea, it was successfully treated with a CPAP -- continuous positive airway pressure machine.
John Peck: And it goes over my nose just like this.
Announcer: The CPAP keeps his air passages open by supplying a steady stream of air pressure through his nose while he sleeps. It has ended John's battle with snoring and keeps his breathing regular, reducing the strain on his heart and circulatory system. It looks very peculiar -- so what does it feel like?
John Peck: It's very comfortable. Once you get used to it, it's easy to wear. It's not a problem at all -- I sleep.
Announcer: Like a baby?
John Peck: Yeah, very soundly.
Announcer: For John, the CPAP machine has had a powerful effect. Considering the risks of sleep apnea, it may have saved his life and it's definitely helped his marriage.
Barbara Peck: The machine certainly has kept us in the same bedroom, in the same bed and another one of our goals was to both of us have a good night's sleep. And both of those things have happened.
Announcer: Other treatments include surgery to remove excess tissue at the back of the throat and dental splints to reposition the jaw and tongue. Over-the-counter remedies such as nasal strips can help with snoring but not with sleep apnea. Apart from keeping your weight under control, if you have sleep apnea you should avoid tobacco, alcohol and sleeping pills.