Snoring

Snoring is the harsh, hoarse sound from the back of the throat. It happens when air passes through the soft, relaxed tissues at the back of your throat, causing them to vibrate. Snoring is common, and most people will experience it now and then. Snoring doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a medical condition, and it isn’t always a bad thing, but it can sometimes be a sign of a chronic problem or serious sleep disorder.

What causes snoring?

When you progress from a light to deep sleep, your tongue, throat muscles, and soft palate muscles (the muscles in the roof of your mouth) relax. This can sometimes partially block your upper airway, causing vibrations when air passes through the soft tissue in the back of your mouth and throat. The more narrowed your upper airway is, the more forceful the flow of air, causing your snoring to become louder.

It’s often hard to tell why one person snores and another one doesn’t. The common causes of snoring may include:

  • Airway obstruction in the nose, such as from a nasal polyp, which can lead to sleep apnea.
  • An enlarged tonsil or swollen adenoids.
  • Irregularly shaped bones or cartilage in the face or nasal passage, such as a deviated septum.
  • Large base of the tongue, or unusually large tongue and small mouth.
  • Later stages of pregnancy.
  • Obesity, which can cause excess tissue in the back of the throat that narrows your airways.
  • Swollen areas inside the mouth and upper airway (including the uvula and soft palate).

  • Alcohol consumption, which relaxes the throat muscles.
  • Antihistamine or sleeping pill use.
  • Being born male, as they are more likely to snore than people born female.
  • Family history of snoring.
  • Nasal congestion from allergies or a cold.
  • Sleep deprivation, which can cause too much relaxation in the throat.
  • Sleeping on your back, as gravity can narrow your airway passages.

Symptoms and complications of snoring

Symptoms

People who snore make a vibrating, rattling, noisy sound while breathing during sleep. It may be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

Other symptoms of sleep apnea may include:

  • Awakening in the morning not feeling rested.
  • Awaking at night feeling confused.
  • Breathing pauses during sleep.
  • Change in your level of attention, concentration, or memory.
  • Gasping or choking during the night.
  • Morning headaches.
  • Sore throat from an inflamed uvula or soft palate.

More troubling symptoms might include:

  • Chest pain during the night.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Recent weight gain.

If you experience the above symptoms, it is important to see your doctor, as these may indicate OSA. Children can also have sleep apnea, often caused by enlarged tonsils or obesity, but should be treated for it by a pediatrician.

Complications

Snoring can affect your sleep, leaving you dragging the next day. But habitual snoring caused by another condition can be more than a nuisance.

Sleep disordered breathing such as sleep apnea can be a dangerous condition. In sleep apnea, you stop breathing for at least 10 seconds per episode and experience on average more than 5 episodes per hour at night.

If your snoring is associated with OSA, you may also be at risk of the following long-term complications:

  • Difficulty thinking clearly or completing daily responsibilities.
  • Mood swings and frequent frustration or anger.
  • Sleepiness or exhaustion during the day.
  • Increased likelihood of motor vehicle accidents.
  • In children with sleep apnea, behavioral problems and aggression.
  • Physical manifestations associated with OSA:
    • Enlarged heart.
    • High blood pressure.
    • Carotid artery thickness.
    • Heart disease.
    • Stroke.

How is snoring diagnosed?

To diagnose your condition, your healthcare practitioner will go through your signs and symptoms and perform a physical exam to see what may be causing your snoring, or if you have sleep apnea. They may ask questions about:

  • Volume and frequency of your snoring.
  • Sleep positions that make your snoring worse.
  • Problems from affected sleep, including feeling sleepy during the day or difficulty with memory or concentration.
  • Any history that you have temporarily stopped breathing during sleep.

They may also request an imaging test, such as an X-ray, CAT scan, or MRI to check your airway structure for problems.

Young man with mask sleeping in airplane seat


Referrals to sleep specialists

You may also be referred to a sleep specialist to diagnose the significance of snoring, particularly if they suspect sleep apnea.

A sleep medicine specialist will run a few tests as part of a sleep study, some of which can be done at home. You may also need to stay overnight at a sleep center for an in-depth analysis of your breathing during sleep. This test is called polysomnography. During this exam, you will be connected to sensors and observed by a sleep medicine specialist to gather certain diagnostic information:

  • Blood oxygen level
  • Brain waves
  • Eye and leg movements
  • Heart and breathing rate
  • Sleep stages

An ENT or ear, nose, and throat specialist (otolaryngologist) may also examine you, checking your throat and neck and the inside of your mouth to diagnose the cause of snoring.

Treatments for snoring

If your snoring is affecting your sleep (or your partner’s), your doctor will likely first recommend lifestyle changes to stop your snoring. They may advise that you:

  • Lose weight through healthy diet and exercise.
  • Limit alcohol intake, especially close to bedtime.
  • Avoid sleep deprivation, either through cutting back on caffeine or stress management techniques.
  • Avoid sleeping on your back.
  • Get treatment for nasal congestion.

For a patient whose snoring is accompanied by sleep apnea, a sleep medicine specialist may recommend different treatments. Visit this page to find out more about sleep apnea treatments.

Preparations before bedtime and a few changes to your sleep style can help prevent or reduce snoring, without the need for medical intervention or surgery. Try these tips to quiet your snoring at home:

  • If you’re a smoker, quit.
  • Don’t drink alcohol or take a sedative just before bedtime.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Dropping excess pounds can help.
  • Use nasal strips (without medicine) that allow more air into the nostrils.
  • Use a nasal dilator, a stiff adhesive strip outside the nostrils to decrease airflow resistance.
  • Try sleeping on your side instead of on your back.
  • Raise the head of your bed about 4 inches.
  • Ask your doctor for a prescription steroid spray to treat chronic congestion.
  • Practice mouth exercises to strengthen the muscle tone in your mouth, tongue, and throat. Anti-snoring exercises are the most effective for people with mild snoring, and can provide relief in about 2-3 months.
  • Use a humidifier while you sleep. The moistened air in your bedroom helps drain mucus, which can reduce symptoms associated with snoring such as throat irritation.
  • Some dietary elements may help reduce your snoring, such as turmeric, soy, or peppermint, although these are not clinically proven.