Know Your Health: What Causes Snoring?

By LunaDNA Contributing Writer 

Snoring occurs when air can’t flow freely through the nose and throat. As air fights to make its way through the airways, it jangles against the tissues in the nose and throat creating a snoring sound. Learn why people snore, and what can be done about it including:  

  • Why Do People Snore? 
  • What Causes Snoring? 
  • Is Snoring Genetic? 
  • Snoring and Sleep Apnea 
  • Snoring Solutions and Treatment 
  • Is Snoring Curable?  
  • How to Stop Snoring 

Why Do People Snore?  

People who snore often have too much tissue in their noses and throats. The snoring sound is due to tissue vibrating in the upper airway, typically during inhalation. Most people don’t know they snore until someone tells them. Signs of snoring are: waking up with a headache or dry mouth, waking up suddenly in the middle of the night (and not from a nightmare), feeling tired during the day (even if sleeping a full night), waking up coughing or wheezing, or experiencing dental issues. 

While snoring is not an illness, it can be a symptom of a serious condition called sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by labored breathing, snoring, and gasps while asleep. In sleep apnea, the neck muscles relax, and the pathway for air to get to the lungs shuts down. At that point, the brain will usually send a signal that it needs more oxygen, which wakes up the snorer.  

Often snorers, especially those with sleep apnea, are unaware they are waking up, but they feel exhausted the following morning.  

What Causes Snoring? 

About 40 percent of men and 24 percent of women are prone to chronic snoring. Possible physical reasons for snoring include being overweight, enlarged tonsils or tongue, enlarged adenoids, elongated soft palate or cleft palate, or the shape of a person’s nose or jaw. Other factors that may contribute to snoring are nasal congestion or allergies, alcohol consumption, smoking, sleeping position, and sleep deprivation.  

The following are risk factors for snoring: 

  • being a man 
  • being overweight 
  • narrow or closed off airway 
  • narrow throat 
  • elongated soft palate 
  • cleft palate 
  • enlarged adenoids 
  • deviated septum 
  • nasal congestion or allergies 
  • sleep position 
  • sleep deprivation 
  • alcohol consumption 
  • smoking 
  • having a family history of snoring or sleep apnea 

Is Snoring Genetic? 

Chronic snoring isn’t necessarily genetic, but factors that contribute to snoring may have hereditary roots. Obesity, certain anatomical traits, and medical conditions like obstructive sleep apnea, can have a genetic component. These traits paired with non-genetic factors may increase a person’s risk of snoring.  

Parents that snore are three times more likely to have children that snore than parents that don’t snore. Even having a family member that chronically snores can be a contributing factor if it causes sleep deprivation (a risk factor in snoring). About 10 percent or more children snore on most nights. 

Snoring and Sleep Apnea – What Are the Signs of Sleep Apnea 

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious medical disorder that causes breathing to stop and start repeatedly throughout the night. If your parent has sleep apnea, you are at a higher risk of developing it. People with sleep apnea have an increased risk of developing insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, abnormal test results on liver function tests, and complications with medications and general anesthesia.  

Types of Sleep Apnea 

There are three main types of sleep apnea.  

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. This occurs when throat muscles relax to the point of hindering airflow, either by the tongue falling into the back of the throat or some other physical obstruction.  
  • Central sleep apnea is the least common form of sleep apnea and occurs when the brain doesn’t send a signal to the muscles that control breathing.  
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome is the diagnosis for people with both types of sleep apnea (obstructive and central).  

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea 

Symptoms of sleep apnea (besides loud snoring) include: 

  • gasping for air during sleep 
  • chest pains 
  • feeling excessively drowsy throughout the day 
  • irritability 
  • chronic headaches or sore throat 
  • dry mouth after waking in the morning 
  • high blood pressure 

Risk factors for sleep apnea include having a heart disorder; excess weight; nasal congestion; thicker neck circumference; a narrow throat; family history of sleep apnea; use of sedatives, pain medications, or alcohol that relax throat muscles; and smoking. Anyone that smokes is three times as likely to have sleep apnea than those who have never smoked. Smoking can increase inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway.  

Snoring Solutions and Treatment 

Treatments for snoring run the gamut from non-invasive nasal breathing strips to invasive surgical procedures. Other non-invasive home remedies include sleeping on the side instead of the back, losing weight, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and treating allergies. Treatments for snoring that may require a prescription for insurance coverage are a mouth guard or a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine that prevents airway collapse. One of the most invasive remedies is surgery to remove the excess tissue in the airway. Success rates for surgery are good, but the procedure can be painful. Surgery is rarely used to treat snoring without sleep apnea. Your doctor can determine the best treatment option for you. 

Is Snoring Curable? 

Less snoring can be achieved with behavioral changes, treatments, and remedies. A diagnosis from a doctor or a specialist, such as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) is the first step. A diagnosis holds the key to determining if snoring is the issue or if it is a symptom of another condition. 

How to Stop Snoring 

To stop snoring, you must find the right combination of strategies. Some simple remedies to try include:  

  • Avoid sleeping on the back; sleeping on the side keeps the tongue from obstructing airflow 
  • Lose that weight, especially if you weren’t snoring before gaining weight 
  • Don’t drink alcohol before bedtime; make sure last call is at least four hours before you go to bed 
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep at night; not getting enough sleep makes muscles floppy and leads to snoring 
  • Try raising the head of your bed by four inches; if this doesn’t work, try a wedge pillow next 
  • Kick the pets out of bed; pet dander can irritate your nasal allergies  
  • Change out the bed pillow regularly to keep dust mites (that can lead to snoring) at bay 
  • Hydrate by drinking plenty of water that helps keep nasal passages moist and unclogged by keeping phlegm flowing and less sticky 

If you’d like to help researchers better understand snoring, sleep apnea, and other conditions, take the LunaDNA sleeps surveys. The more people who come together to contribute health data for the greater good, the quicker and more efficient research will scale, and improve the quality of life for us all.  

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