Why the Doctor Treats Snoring Seriously

The movies and TV often depict snoring as funny, even hilarious. But snoring is no joke: It's a medical problem that can have serious health and social implications.

Up to half of adults snore at some time in their life. Of those, half are habitual snorers who may keep their partners awake just about every night by snoring in any sleeping positions, but most commonly when the snorer is on his or her back.

When you hear someone snoring, it means air is not flowing freely through the back of the throat. The sound occurs when air causes vibration of the soft palate and the uvula, the tiny pink flap of tissue that hangs down at the rear of your throat. Snoring may be caused by a number of things, including enlarged tonsils or allergies.

The average snorer is a man in his early 40s or older. In fact, snoring affects men more often than women. The risk increases with age for both men and women.  

Although snoring is a common symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), not all snorers have OSA. Primary snoring is snoring without the symptoms of sleep disruption, insomnia, or sleepiness during the daytime. About 20% to 50% of snorers may have OSA, a condition in which tissue if the upper airway obstructs the airway so that the person has very shallow breathing (hypopnea) or actually stops breathing (apnea). OSA is defined as having more than 5 apnea or hypopneas per hour with either microarousals to lighter sleep, or lowering of the body's oxygen by less than 4% each for 10 seconds or more. Microarousals are events in which a person goes from deeper to lighter sleep to improve muscle tone of the upper airway and allow better oxygen flow. Some people will even wake up gasping for breath. In severe cases, breathing may stop for 60 to 90 seconds up to several hundred times a night. 

People with OSA seldom feel well-rested, and decreased alertness during the day makes them more prone to accidents. Severe cases can cause a drop in oxygen, straining the heart. OSA is also a leading cause of high blood pressure.

The standard treatments for sleep apnea involve weight loss, not sleeping on your back, evaluation of the nasal passages and upper airway for obstruction (and surgical correction where necessary), and wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask on the nose while sleeping to help splint open the upper airway. Your doctor may also recommend other therapies, including a dental device fitted by a dentist to move the lower jaw forward slightly.

To limit snoring

  • Control your weight. Extra pounds can aggravate snoring.

  • Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills and tranquilizers. They blunt the body's drive to breathe, worsening sleep apnea.

  • Sleep on your side. On your back, the tongue tends to fall backward into the throat, reducing air flow. You snore as you breathe through your mouth to compensate.

  • Keep a routine schedule with adequate sleep. Lack of rest may worsen snoring.

  • Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.