October 03, 2022 4 min read
Almost half of all adults snore from time to time. But even habitual snoring — defined as snoring for at least 3 nights a week — is fairly common, being reported in 10-36% of all adults. And according to a fairly recent survey by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), these numbers could be even higher.
Because snoring is such a common thing, many seem to view it as normal. But is this really the case? Or could your loud breathing at night be a sign of a serious health problem?
In short, snoring can be bad for health in some cases. But not every case of snoring warrants a visit to the GP. Here’s more on if and when snoring is bad for health and what to do about it.
Snoring is the snorting and rattling noise you make when your upper airway is obstructed during sleep. When air can’t flow freely through a narrowed airway, it becomes turbulent and causes the soft tissues in the throat to vibrate, producing what we call snoring.
There are many reasons someone’s airway can become obstructed. A cold or allergy, for example, can lead to a blocked nose and inflamed throat. A deviated septum can also cause turbulent airflow. Collapse of soft tissues at the back of your throat due to excess weight around the neck or low muscle tone can also lead to snoring.
And while snoring is fairly common, it occurs more frequently in people who are older, male, and overweight. Women’s propensity to snore equals that of men after menopause and during pregnancy, however. Having a family history of snoring and drinking alcohol and taking sedatives before bedtime can also increase your risk of snoring.
Light and infrequent snoring is usually not anything serious. As explained, almost everyone snores occasionally, during bouts of cold, with seasonal allergies, or after a night out drinking. This type of snoring is often referred to as simple snoring and does not harm health.
But loud and frequent snoring is often the first sign of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops during sleep, usually for 20 to 30 seconds at a time. These pauses in breathing cause low blood oxygen levels that trigger arousal from sleep. But sufferers are not aware they’re waking up hundreds of times at night. Instead, they might notice:
These symptoms are a result of low blood oxygen levels and fragmented sleep. Both harm health in the long run.
So, while simple snoring usually does not harm health, sleep apnea does. But there’s a catch: many cases of sleep apnea are preceded by simple snoring. One reason being that snoring irritates the upper airways and can cause anatomic changes that make it more likely for snoring to become chronic.
If your snoring is getting progressively worse and is accompanied by other troublesome symptoms, you should definitely speak to your doctor about it. They will likely refer you to a sleep clinic to undergo a polysomnography test, also called a sleep study. This comprehensive test is performed overnight in a sleep lab and checks eye movement, breathing rates, and blood oxygen levels.
A sleep study is the only way to confirm or rule out sleep apnea. Your doctor may also suggest a home sleep test, which measures heart rate, blood oxygen levels, airflow, and breathing patterns. If the test confirms that you have sleep apnea, you will get further referrals to a neurologist, cardiologist, and ear, nose, and throat doctor to determine the causes of your problem.
Unfortunately, many sleep apnea sufferers do not seek treatment. Sleep apnea remains underrecognized and underdiagnosed. It is estimated that up to 85% of sleep apnea sufferers remain undiagnosed. Researchers believe one reason for this is that people are unaware that they snore unless someone tells them.
Snore solutions depend on the causes, of course. In some cases, you can easily determine the cause yourself. If you’ve recently started snoring after developing allergies, treating the allergy can help prevent snoring from getting worse. In other instances, it’s best to have a professional look into the possible causes and suggest a solution that will work for you. These solutions might include:
Losing weight, exercising, and avoiding alcohol and sedatives before bedtime are effective ways to treat snoring. And if you’re a smoker, definitely consider quitting as smoking can lead to congestion, a common cause of snoring.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy
CPAP therapy is the first-line treatment for most cases of sleep apnea. CPAP therapy uses machines that open up the airways with mild air pressure. A CPAP machine has a motor, tube, and mask that covers the nose and/or mouth.
Medicines like nasal decongestants and those that promote daytime wakefulness can be used in the treatment of snoring and sleep apnea. Bariatric surgery for overweight patients with sleep apnea is recommended in some cases.
If your snoring is due to a deviated septum, enlarged tonsils, an elongated uvula, and other anatomical abnormalities, surgery may be the best treatment option.
Palatal implant surgery is another option used to treat mild sleep apnea and some cases of snoring.
Oral appliance therapy
Oral appliances are medical devices that are worn inside the mouth to help keep the upper airway open. They include mandibular advancement devices (MAD) that push the lower jaw slightly forward and tongue-stabilizing devices like the Good Morning Snore Solution mouthpiece.
Snoring. Science Direct. Accessed September 2022. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and dentistry/snoring#:~:text=Epidemiology,prevalence%20rates%20can%20be%20higher.
Is it more than a snore? Recognizing sleep apnea warning signs. American Academy of Sleep Medicine website. Published June 8th, 2021. https://aasm.org/is-it-more-than-a-snore-recognizing-sleep-apnea-warning-signs/
Ullmer E, Solèr M. Vom einfachen Schnarchen zum Schlafapnoe Syndrom--klinisches Spektrum [From simple snoring to sleep apnea syndrome--clinical spectrum]. Ther Umsch. 2000;57(7):430-434. doi:10.1024/0040-5922.214.171.1240
Motamedi KK, McClary AC, Amedee RG. Obstructive sleep apnea: a growing problem. Ochsner J. 2009;9(3):149-153. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3096276/#:~:text=Obstructive%20sleep%20apnea%20is%20an,loud%20snoring%2C%20and%20restless%20sleep.
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