Myths About Snoring
November 9, 2012
By Robert H. Shmerling, M.D.
Have you ever wondered why people snore?
Perhaps you should. Whether it's you, your housemate or your bedmate, understanding snoring and its treatment can help keep peace at home. And it can even help identify and treat serious illnesses associated with snoring.
Snoring is remarkably common. And, it becomes more common with age. About a third of 30 year-olds and 50% of those age 60 and older snore. Yet, most of them don't know why they do it (if they know they're snoring at all). Here are some of the most common myths about snoring:
Each of these is completely or largely false. Here's why:
Snoring is caused by turbulent air flow through the upper airways (the mouth and nasal passages) that causes the uvula and palate at the back of the throat to vibrate. Also, the tissues in the upper airways lose muscle tone and become loose as we age. As a result, they vibrate more as air sails past.
Several conditions that interfere with air flow or affect muscle tone may contribute to snoring. These include:
Sometimes snoring is just a nuisance. But, it may be a sign of a serious medical condition.
The most common (by far) is obstructive sleep apnea. With this condition, people don't just snore. They also stop breathing for short periods of time while sleeping. And the quality of their sleep is poor. Oxygen levels in the blood may drop. This can lead to complications, such as high blood pressure, an unstable heart rhythm or a serious lung disease (called pulmonary hypertension).
Of course, it also matters to the snoring person's bedmate.
Banishing a snorer to another room is not the best solution.
If you have a treatable condition that may be contributing to your snoring, see your doctor. For example, if you have a cold, allergies or a sinus infection, treating these conditions may improve or eliminate the snoring.
Losing excess weight, moderating alcohol use (especially at night), and adjusting your sleep position may be helpful. A special dental appliance can hold the jaw and tongue in a position that reduces snoring. However, the device can be hard to tolerate.
Besides losing excess weight, the most common treatment for sleep apnea (and the snoring that accompanies it) is a "continuous positive airway pressure" (CPAP) device. It includes a mask through which air flows. The air pressure keeps the airways open. While these can be quite effective, many people find them hard to tolerate. (Some snorers remove the appliance while sleeping without even realizing it.
Surgery can be a last resort. It can help increase the space available for air to flow through the upper airways. Examples include tonsillectomy, repair of a deviated septum or removal of the uvula.
Snoring is common and highly misunderstood. But, there's a lot you can do if you're one of the estimated 90 million Americans who snore. Just don't assume it's only men or obese people who snore. These are myths you can help end. Snoring is serious business. Just ask the guy sleeping on the downstairs couch.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.