What is snoring?

Snoring is a rough, rattling sound that comes from your mouth, nose and back of your throat when you're asleep. When you're awake, muscles in your nose, mouth and throat keep your airways open. This allows you to breathe freely. But when you're asleep, your muscles relax. This means your airways can sometimes close up and stop air from getting in or out easily. When you try to breathe, the soft tissue in your mouth, nose and throat (palate and base of the tongue) vibrates, making you snore. Anyone of any age can snore, but it’s most common in overweight and obese men.

Why does snoring matter?

On its own, snoring isn't harmful. But if you snore, you may have a more serious condition called obstructive sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea means you repeatedly stop breathing throughout the night, which breaks your sleep and wakes you up – although you may not be aware of this. It’s important to get treatment for this as it can cause extreme tiredness in the day, which can lead to accidents – particularly if you drive or operate machinery.

Even if it’s not harmful to you, snoring can seriously affect the people who live with you. For many couples, and in some cases whole families, snoring can cause major sleep disturbance and often, significant relationship issues.

What can I do to stop snoring?

Everyone snores from time to time and there are some things that make you more likely to snore that you can’t do anything about. For instance, you’re more likely to snore if you’re a man, or a woman going through the menopause. You’re also more likely to snore as you get older, as your muscle tone reduces, which can increase your risk of snoring.

However, there are certain things that can make you more likely to snore that you do have control over. These include the following.

  • Being overweight, especially if you have excess fat around your neck, can limit airflow and increase your risk of snoring. Try to lose excess weight if you’re overweight by following a healthy, balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Drinking alcohol can make your muscles relax more than usual, causing your palate and tongue to vibrate. Reducing your alcohol intake and not drinking alcohol before you go to bed may help to prevent snoring.
  • Smoking can irritate your nostrils and throat, and even passive smoking can make snoring worse. Stop smoking if you do smoke. Talk to your GP if you need help to quit.
  • Your sleeping position can affect snoring. When you lie flat on your back, your tongue is more likely to fall back into your throat and block your airway and cause you to snore. Try to sleep on your side, and keep your head slightly raised on pillows, or raise the mattress at the head end. Only use one pillow, or two thin ones.

If these measures don’t seem to work, it’s worth talking to your GP. He or she will check for any underlying health problems and might refer you to a specialist at a sleep clinic for a sleep study, your dentist, or an ear nose and throat specialist.

Treatments for snoring

It’s possible that there may be an underlying physical reason for your snoring, for instance, you’re more likely to snore if you have:

  • a receding lower jaw
  • a large uvula (the small piece of tissue that hangs down from your soft palate, at the back of your mouth) or enlarged tonsils
  • low levels of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism)
  • a blocked nose, caused by congestion (for example an allergy or a cold), nasal polyps or damage to your nose

If your GP suspects a physical cause for your snoring, he or she may suggest treatment to try to resolve the problem.

For example, if a blocked nose could be part of your problem, your GP may suggest a nasal spray to help reduce congestion. If the menopause brought on your snoring, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) might be an option. And if you’re diagnosed with an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), your GP may prescribe the hormone thyroxine.

A type of mouth guard that pushes your lower jaw forward, called a mandibular advancement device, can be effective at reducing snoring for some people. The mouth guard works by improving the air flow when you sleep. Your GP or dentist will be able to give you more advice.

If you have sleep apnoea, your GP may also suggest you try continuous positive airway pressure – this involves using a machine and face mask to blow pressurised air into your mouth and nose. This is only used for sleep apnoea and not general snoring.

If nothing else has worked and you have visited a sleep clinic for a sleep study, your doctor at the clinic may suggest surgery. There are several different types of operation, mostly to change the soft palate in your throat. The aim is to remove, change or make the parts of soft tissue in your airway that vibrate when you're sleeping smaller. Surgery isn’t always effective at treating snoring and so is only used as a last resort. Talk to your doctor to see if surgery may be an option for you.

Published by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2012.