Most people snore occasionally. For chronic snorers, though, it is a problem not just for them but also for their partners. So, why do some people snore and others sleep silently and restfully?
Snoring happens when the neck muscles relax during sleep so much that the airway narrows. This creates a vibrating sound when the person breathes. In fact, 40% of healthy adults snore (most of them are unaware of it). In fact, most snorers only find out when a partner complains about being kept awake.
What are the Risk Factors for Snoring?
The primary “risk factor” for snoring is the conformation of your mouth and throat. Put simply, some people have a narrower airway and/or more loose tissue around the airway, which can make sounds. There are other risk factors, though.
- Being a man. Men snore more frequently than women.
- Habitually sleeping on your back. (In fact, many people who do not normally snore will start snoring if they sleep on their back, as gravity pulls the airway closer together).
- Weight. Overweight people tend to have extra fat in the back of their throats that can increase snoring.
- A long or large uvula.
- Alcohol consumption. Alcohol relaxes your throat muscles more.
- Deviated nasal septum. This is a crooked partition between your nostrils.
- Chronic nasal congestion. Some people who do not normally snore may snore if they have a cold or allergy symptoms. In fact, unexpected snoring can even be, in some people, the first sign that they’re coming down with something.
- Sleep deprivation.
- Having an overbite or underbite.
- Family history.
What Problems does Snoring Cause?
Habitual snoring is sometimes only a nuisance, but snoring can cause problems including:
- Relationship difficulties, especially if your partner is a light sleeper.
- Insufficient sleep, sometimes causing daytime sleepiness. This can be dangerous if you drive or are in certain professions.
- Irritability, frustration, or anger.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Increased risk of heart problems, high blood pressure, or stroke.
- In children, behavioral problems.
When does Snoring become Sleep Apnea?
Snoring is also a primary symptom of sleep apnea. In people with sleep apnea, the airway closes periodically when sleeping. The person generally wakes up with a start, starts breathing again, then may stop breathing when they fall asleep. This can happen as often as five times an hour.
If your snoring is particularly loud or is accompanied by the following, you need to be evaluated for sleep apnea:
- A sore or dry throat on awakening.
- Waking up with a choking or gasping sensation.
- Daytime sleepiness and fatigue, including while driving.
- Headaches in the morning.
- Forgetfulness and mood changes
- Decreased interest in sex.
If you have any of these symptoms, then you need to get a sleep study done. Fortunately, these days sleep studies can be done at home in many cases. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, then you may need a CPAP machine.
What Can You Do About Your Snoring?
There are a few lifestyle changes that can reduce or eliminate snoring, some of which can also fix mild cases of sleep apnea.
- Changing your sleep position, particularly if you commonly sleep on your back. You should attempt to sleep on your side. If you have difficulty doing so, consider a body pillow. This supports your entire body and helps keep you on your side. Some people have also had success with taping tennis balls or similar to the back of their pajamas. The worst position to sleep in is on your back with one or both arms over your head. On your side is better. Some people still snore in a fetal position, because of the curve in the spine.
- Get a wedge pillow. This elevates your head and helps free up your airway.
- Lose weight, if you can. This is particularly important if you did not snore when you were skinny.
- Avoid alcohol. Most people will snore after drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, so keep your consumption moderate and avoid drinking right before bed.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation causes you to sleep more deeply, which creates snoring.
- Try a hot shower before bed to open your nasal passages.
- Try nasal strips. They only work if the snoring is in your nose, not your soft palate, but are inexpensive.
- Clean your pillows. If you have down pillows, get yourself tested for down allergy. (If you don’t normally snore but do when you stay in a hotel, then ask if they’re using down pillows…a lot of hotels do as a default and a good number of people are allergic to down). You might also get tested for dust mite allergy (dust mites love pillows). Allergies can cause snoring even if they are mild and not causing other symptoms.
- Don’t sleep with your pets. Pet dander can be a throat irritant.
- Quit smoking. Smokers tend to snore.
- Don’t take sleeping pills. Because they induce a very deep sleep, they often make you snore.
If none of these work or if you have sleep apnea, you may need to go for a more complex treatment.
What is a CPAP Machine?
A CPAP machine is the go-to treatment for sleep apnea. You sleep wearing a mask and the machine delivers gentle air pressure through the mask. This keeps your upper airway passages open. CPAP machines are the most common and reliable method of treating sleep apnea. Modern CPAP machines are quiet and generally will not disturb your partner. CPAP machines have to be adjusted to the specific person and some people have to try more than one mask design before finding one which works. The mask has to be adjusted correctly, or the air will leak out.
Some people do not tolerate CPAP machines well. If you absolutely cannot sleep while wearing a mask, you might try an oral appliance to keep your throat open. If all other options fail, you may need surgery. This generally means removing tissue from the back of the throat or using radio-frequency ablation to shrink the tissue. Some people also benefit from surgery to reposition their jaw, especially if an underbite is a contributing factor.
If you are snoring chronically, especially if you also have any of the sleep apnea symptoms mentioned above or snoring persists even when sleeping in a good position, then you may want to contact an ENT specialist. A specialist can give you options your family doctor might be less familiar with. You always have treatment options, and some of them may be as simple as a new pillow.