Snoring

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What is snoring?

Snoring is the sound produced by tissues that rattle and vibrate during breathing when part of your airway is blocked during sleep. Snoring is often thought of as a nuisance for the person’s sleeping partner, but it can be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as obstructive sleep apnea.

Snoring is relatively common; experts estimate that almost 60% of men and 40% of women in the United States snore. Children snore, too—almost 30% do at some point.

Snoring sounds can range from a light, whistling sound to loud snorting, punctuated by short periods of silence. People who live alone may not realize they snore, but they may experience symptoms such as fatigue, daytime sleepiness, and irritability that suggest a lack of quality sleep. If you are experiencing these symptoms, talk to your doctor about possible sleep apnea, and whether a sleep study is recommended for further evaluation of your sleep patterns.

A variety of factors can contribute to snoring, including being overweight, sleeping on your back, or drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Making lifestyle changes to address these habits may help reduce snoring. If other sleep deprivation symptoms persist, a doctor can help provide guidance on medical testing and treatment options for possible sleep disorders.

Snoring itself is not a medical emergency, but seek prompt medical care if you or someone in your home is also experiencing daytime tiredness, fatigue, irritability, or difficulty concentrating, as these may be signs of a sleep disorder. Seek emergency care (call 911) if a sleeping person stops breathing, cannot be roused, does not have a pulse, or has bluish lips or fingertips.

What are the different types of snoring?

When evaluating whether snoring may indicate a more serious condition, doctors rate the type, frequency and severity of the snoring:

  • Light snoring that happens from time to time is typically not a cause for concern. This type of snoring could happen due to a chest cold or if you drink alcohol near bedtime. Other than being an occasional nuisance to a bed partner or housemate, light snoring does not pose a major health threat. 

  • Primary snoring occurs more frequently, at least three nights a week. It may be more disruptive to the sleep patterns of a bed partner or roommate due to its regularity. 

  • Snoring caused by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is serious and requires medical treatment. With OSA, the airway becomes completely blocked, causing the person to wake up several times a night. Untreated obstructive sleep apnea can increase risk of conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and mental health issues. The resulting sleep deprivation from repeated awakenings overnight can lead to daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and impaired judgment that can become dangerous or even life-threatening.  

What are symptoms related to snoring?

Snoring itself is a rattling, snorting sound caused by vibration of tissues in the airway during sleep.

Additional symptoms that may indicate a more serious sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea, include:

  • Waking up tired and not refreshed from a night’s sleep

  • Feeling overly sleepy throughout the day

  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating

  • Morning headaches

  • Sore, dry throat in the morning

  • Restlessness at night

  • Waking at night feeling like you’re gasping or choking

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

  • Chest pain at night

If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor about an evaluation for a sleep disorder. If you have a condition such as obstructive sleep apnea, treatment options are available to reduce symptoms, improve your health, and help you—and those around you—get a good night’s sleep.

What causes snoring?

Snoring can be caused by a variety of factors, sometimes in combination. In cases when an underlying condition such as obstructive sleep apnea has been ruled out, possible causes of snoring include:

  • Deviated nasal septum, in which the partition between the nostrils is crooked. This affects how the air passes through during breathing. People can be born with a deviated septum or it can be the result of an injury.

  • Narrowed airway, possibly due to enlarged tonsils, tissue extending from your soft palate, or excess tissue at the back of the airway due to being overweight or obese.

  • Nasal congestion caused by a temporary cold or allergies. Pregnant women can also experience increased snoring due to inflammation in the nose and throat caused by hormonal changes.

  • Alcohol or medications that cause sedation, which can relax the muscles in your throat and cause snoring. This can also occur when taking over-the-counter sleep aids.

  • Sleep position, primarily when sleeping on your back. The airway can become narrowed in this position, causing snoring. Snoring usually stops when the person moves to a new sleep position.

  • Exhaustion, which can cause your body to relax more than usual, including the muscles in your throat, leading to snoring

What are the risk factors for snoring?

Several factors increase the risk of snoring, although not all people with risk factors will snore.

Risk factors for snoring include:

  • Being male. More men snore than women. They also are more likely to have sleep apnea.

  • Having a family history of snoring. If you have a parent who snores, chances are you might as well.

  • Conditions that partially block the airway. Issues such as polyps in the nasal passages or a deviated septum can cause snoring. Extra tissue at the back of your throat, enlarged tonsils, or having a naturally narrow passageway can lead to snoring.

  • Chronic nasal congestion. Symptoms of a cold or allergies, such as nasal congestion and inflammation, can contribute to snoring.

  • Being pregnant. Pregnancy hormones and weight gain can both contribute to increased snoring. 

  • Being overweight. Excess weight can put pressure on the upper airway, causing it to narrow.

  • Consuming alcohol or sedatives. Relaxation in neck muscles caused by certain medications or alcohol can lead to snoring.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of snoring?

If snoring is severe and your doctor suspects sleep apnea, he or she may order a sleep test. These evaluations can be performed at home or in a sleep lab. During a sleep test, wires may be attached to the scalp and other parts of the body to monitor activity during sleep. This includes how often you wake up, oxygen levels, and body movement during sleep.

If the results of a sleep test indicate obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor will discuss treatment options to open your airway and improve the quality of your sleep.

What are the treatments for snoring?

In cases of light or primary snoring, treatment may not be necessary unless the snoring is significantly disruptive to a bed partner or housemate.

When snoring is not caused by a more serious underlying condition, snoring remedies can include:

  • Going to bed before you feel overly tired or exhausted

  • Limiting alcohol or sedative use, particularly right before bedtime

  • Losing weight if you are overweight or obese

  • Raising the head of your bed (not just your pillows) to elevate the top of your airway while you sleep 

  • Sleeping on your side instead of your back

  • Taking medications to reduce nasal congestion when needed

  • Talking to your dentist about whether a mouth guard may help reduce snoring

If you have a significant blockage in your airway due to a condition, such as polyps or enlarged tonsils, your doctor may recommend surgery to clear your airway.

For snoring caused by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), treatment of the underlying apnea will help reduce or eliminate snoring. In many cases, this involves continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) through use of a machine that delivers pressurized air to keep airways open during sleep. Some people may have difficulty using these devices, and other variations of positive airway pressure are available. Your doctor will discuss all your sleep apnea treatment options if OSA is diagnosed as the cause of your snoring.

What are the potential complications of snoring?

Chronic snoring can make it difficult for a spouse or partner to get quality sleep if you share a bed. This can result in fatigue, exhaustion or irritability that has an effect on your relationship during the day.

For the person who snores, an underlying sleep disorder may result in chronic symptoms, such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and daytime sleepiness that could put someone in a dangerous situation, such as falling asleep while driving.

Untreated obstructive sleep apnea also puts a person at increased risk for serious conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and depression.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 2
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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