July 11, 2022 5 min read
Most people snore at least occasionally, but not all snorers are alike. From quiet whistles to loud snorts, snoring sounds different from one person to the next and on different nights.
If you are a habitual snorer — or if you sleep next to one — you’ve likely wondered whether any change in pitch and volume could mean something. And the answer isyes, different snore sounds do mean different things.
Snoring sounds can differ depending on where exactly it is produced in the upper airway, which can help determine the course of treatment. The type of snore can also help doctors determine if you’re suffering with a case of simple but benign snoring or sleep apnea. Learn more about the different types of snoring and what they could mean below.
Despite the myth of snoring being a sign of deep sleep, there’s nothing positive about it. Snoring is simply noisy breathing caused by a narrowing of the upper airway. This narrowing results in turbulent airflow, causing throat and nose tissues to vibrate and rattle, thus producing that all-too-familiar sound(s).
There are many reasons your upper airway can narrow and lead to snoring. Just a couple of these include:
Some of these risk factors lead to temporary snoring, while others can lead to habitual snoring, which is defined as snoring at least 3 nights a week. If you’re a habitual snorer, it’s important to get treated since habitual snoring can get worse over time and progress to obstructive sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder where breathing repeatedly stops.
As already mentioned, snoring can happen due to a myriad of reasons. The different causes behind snoring also tend to manifest differently in frequency, volume, pitch, etc, due to the severity of the obstruction but also the site of the snoring.
You see, the great majority of snoring is generated by the flutter of the soft palate, a soft muscular tissue at the back of your mouth. However, studies have found that in up to 20% of cases, snoring can happen in other sites, like the supraglottis, epiglottis, tongue base, and tonsils. According to a review looking into the acoustics of snoring, there are two main types of snoring:
Most snoring sounds are palatal, which results from the vibration of the soft palate and surrounding tissues (pharyngeal wall and uvula). This type of snoring is characterized by explosive peaks of sound at low frequency.
Tongue-based, epiglottic, and hypopharyngeal snoring, in contrast, produces snoring sounds at a higher frequency than palatal snoring and is considered more “noise-like.”
Knowing where snoring is generated and why helps doctors determine the best and most effective treatment, e.g. weight loss, palatal surgery, or tongue-stabilizing device. However, for most habitual snorers, more than one area is involved in their snoring, which complicates treatment.
The sound of snoring also tends to peak in intensity during the deeper stages of sleep (stages 3 and 4). That’s simply because muscle tone decreases during deep sleep, which increases the risk of upper airway collapse. Sleeping on the back further increases this risk.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a type of sleep-related breathing disorder. In OSA, breathing repeatedly stops due to total obstruction of the upper airway, disrupting normal sleep architecture and increasing a person’s risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even dementia.
Snoring is one of the first signs of sleep apnea. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between simple, non-apneic snoring sounds from apneic snoring since the latter warrants prompt treatment. The main differences between the two are:
Light and rhythmic, non-apneic snoring typically follows the patterns of normal breathing. Successive snores are usually less than a couple of seconds apart, and there is usually a resumption of normal breathing once the obstruction that’s causing the snoring temporarily clears.
People with OSA snore frequently, loudly, and through the night. Their snoring typically becomes louder and louder leading to a crescendo and followed by a long pause, not only in snoring but in breathing as well. OSA sufferers may stop breathing for 10 seconds or more, which is usually followed by loud gasps or snorts. Sufferers are usually not aware this is happening.
No matter if you have simple snoring or show signs of OSA, it’s important to speak to your doctor since a sleep study may be needed to diagnose or rule out OSA.
Snoring is at best a temporary nuisance for bed partners or the entire household. But it can also become frequent and progress to sleep apnea if not treated on time.
If you were told that you snore or someone you care about is the offender, there are simple measures you could take to see if the issue resolves itself on its own:
Lose weight if overweight
Moderate but sustained weight loss can help reduce the severity of OSA and even prevent snoring from getting worse, according to a 5-year follow-up trial. Excess tissue in the neck combined with reduced muscle tone is known to contribute to snoring and OSA.
Avoid sedatives, especially at night
Alcohol and anxiolytics both cause the muscles to relax, which can increase your risk of snoring. The same holds true for sleeping pills or hypnotics.
Train yourself to side sleep
If you tend to snore only when sleeping on your back, you could try training yourself to become a side sleeper. Tucking a pillow behind your back can help keep you in the side sleeping position. A medium-firm mattress and firm pillow can also help.
Smoking is a common risk factor for snoring. It irritates the upper airways, causing inflammation that makes snoring more likely. While not easy, nicotine-replacement products, medication, and even electronic cigarettes can make quitting easier.
Try oral appliances
While the above treatments help over time, oral appliances like theGood Morning Snore Solution mouthpiece provide immediate relief. These devices keep the upper airway open by gently holding the tongue or jaw in place while you sleep.
And if your snoring is accompanied by daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, trouble focusing, and hypertension, it’s important to rule out sleep apnea before taking any other steps. The sooner you treat OSA — which is controlled with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy — the better your outcomes.
A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M., Inc.; c1997-2019. Snoring - adults. Updated July 19, 2021. Accessed June 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000720.htm
Slowik JM, Collen JF. Obstructive Sleep Apnea. [Updated 2022 Feb 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459252/
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Alison Aubrey. Beyond Annoying: How To Identify The Sounds Of A Troublesome Snore.National Public Radiowebsite. Published April 22, 2019. Accessed June 2022.https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/22/714249236/beyond-annoying-how-to-identify-the-sounds-of-a-troublesome-snore
Tuomilehto H, Seppä J, Uusitupa M, et al. The impact of weight reduction in the prevention of the progression of obstructive sleep apnea: an explanatory analysis of a 5-year observational follow-up trial.Sleep Med. 2014;15(3):329-335.doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2013.11.786
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