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02:31 - Source: CNN

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CNN  — 

At some point in our lives, we all snore. A cold or allergy can block nasal passages, a few drinks too close to bed will automatically relax tongue, palate and throat muscles – and before we know it, we’re unconsciously forcing air past those soft tissues, causing vibrations that escape as a snore.

“Snoring can be normal and not something to worry about,” said sleep specialist Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in the division of sleep medicine for Harvard Medical School.

But snoring can also be a key sign of obstructive sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder in which people actually stop breathing for 10 seconds or more at a time.

“When it’s loud, raucous snoring, or it’s interrupted by pauses in breathing, that’s where we start to get concerned,” Robbins said.

It’s estimated that at least 25 million Americans and 936 million people worldwide may suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, with many more undiagnosed.

‘It can be very, very scary’

It’s called “obstructive” sleep apnea because unlike central sleep apnea – in which the brain occasionally skips telling the body to breathe – obstructive sleep apnea is due to a blockage of the airways by weak, heavy or relaxed soft tissues.

“You’re making the effort with your belly and your chest to try to get the air in and out, but because of the obstruction in the upper airway, you can’t. Often you aren’t aware of this struggle, but it can be very, very scary for anyone watching,” said sleep specialist Dr. Raj Dasgupta, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea puts you at high risk for hypertension, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes or depression, even an early death, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

How can you tell when your snoring has become dangerous to your health? Sleep experts use a sleep questionnaire with an easy-to-follow acronym: STOP BANG.

S stands for snoring

Snoring is a key indicator, so it’s a no-duh that it leads the list of potential warnings signs. But this is no pitiful, whimpy snore, and certainly not a snore that anyone could ever call “cute.”