Why people snore and how to prevent snoring

Emeh Joy

Almost everyone snores once in a while but it becomes a chronic problem when it is frequent and occurs with harsh or hoarse sounds. It can also indicate a serious health problem. But, why do people snore?

A man snoring while sleeping beside his wife

What causes snoring?

Snoring is noisy breathing that occurs when air passes rough relaxed tissues in the airway, causing the tissues to vibrate.

Snoring occurs when breathing is partially obstructed, causing air not to flow easily through the mouth or nose. Air forced through the partially obstructed airway causes tissues in that pathway to bump into each other and vibrate, causing a grunting or rattling sound.

According to a study, occasional snoring occurs in about 40% of children and 49% of adults. While habitual snoring occurs in 2.4-15% of children and 10-36% of adults.3

Note:

Habitual snoring is defined as the occurrence of snoring at least three nights per week.

Snoring is usually caused by a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). It’s not everybody that snores that has this disorder. 

However, if the following symptoms accompany snoring, then it is an indication to consult a doctor for evaluation of OSA:

  • Breathing pauses during sleep
  • Restless sleep
  • Waking up with a headache
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Waking up with sore throat
  • Choking sensation or gasping at night
  • Chest pain at night
  • Excess sleep during the day
  • High blood pressure
  • Loud snoring that can disrupt partner’s sleep

People with obstructive sleep apnoea often experience loud snoring followed by periods when breathing slows or stops. This happens at least 5 times during every hour of sleep.

Aside from obstructive sleep apnoea, other things can cause snoring. 

Common causes of snoring

The following are possible reasons why a person's airway can be blocked or chronically narrowed, causing snoring:

Sleep position

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Most occasional snoring is a result of sleep position. Snoring usually occurs when lying in a supine position (lying on the back with face facing up). 

When lying in a supine position, gravity pulls the tissues around the airway downwards thus, making the airway more narrow. 

According to research, the intensity and frequency of snoring reduced in some patients when they lay on their side (lateral position).4 Also, sleeping on a specialized pillow designed to keep the head on one side can reduce snoring.

Overweight

People that are overweight tend to have more tissue in the neck. The extra tissue can lead to smaller airway size and an increased tendency of the airway to collapse.

This shows that weight loss may reduce snoring in overweight individuals. A study found that men that lost up to six pounds noticed reductions in their snoring frequency.1

In the study, more significant weight losses caused near elimination of snoring.

Nasal congestion

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A stuffy nose can reduce the flow of air through the airway, causing the airway to collapse. Infections, allergies and dry air are common causes of nasal congestion.

If these conditions persist, they can lead to chronic nasal congestion and cause habitual snoring. 

A study showed that adults who always experienced nasal congestion at night were three times more like to develop habitual snoring.5

Gender

Men have a higher tendency to snore, and this is because of their biological attributes. 

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, about 40% of adult males are habitual snorers compared to 24% of women that snore often.

Men typically have narrower air passages than women. Their upper airways are also longer. With larger upper airways and lower hanging larynxes, a larger space is created at the back of the throat, amplifying snores.

A narrow throat, more tissues around the airways, longer upper airways, larger soft palate are all physical attributes that can contribute to snoring. They can also be hereditary. 

While nothing can be done to change gender or physical built, changes to lifestyle, bedtime routines, and throat exercise can help reduce the frequency and intensity of snoring.

Alcohol and sedatives

Alcohol and sedative medications relax the muscles supporting the airway tissue, causing snoring. Snorers, including those with obstructive sleep apnoea, experience more severe snoring when they drink alcohol. 

Some physicians recommend that patients avoid sedative medications and alcohol shortly before bedtime to reduce snoring. People may experience benefits with this approach. 

Ageing

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Just like hormones, physical strength and sex drive change as people get older, sleep also change as people age. 

As people age, they tend to snore more in their sleep. This is because the tongue and muscles surrounding the airway get weaker and prone to collapse.

A study showed that engaging in mouth and throat exercise (myofunctional therapy) reduced the intensity and frequency of snoring in some people.2 The Sleep Foundation listed out some mouth and throat exercises to help stop snoring.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is a medical condition characterised by an inability of the thyroid gland to produce enough thyroid hormone.

Thyroid hormone helps regulate the body’s metabolism, affecting weight loss or weight gain. It controls the muscles, heart rate and digestive function.

If hypothyroidism is left untreated, it can cause symptoms like hoarse voice, puffy face, slow heart rate and slow speech. 

A study of hypothyroidism patients showed that all of them snored

How to prevent snoring at night

Many people would want to know how to prevent snoring at night. There are several things you can do to prevent snoring while sleeping such as sleeping in the right position.

However, the best way to prevent snoring caused by serious issues like obstructive sleep apnoea and hypothyroidism is by treating the underlying medical conditions. 

It would be best to see your doctor if you experience some unusual symptoms accompanying snoring.

Other things that can be done to prevent snoring at night include:

  • Avoiding drinking alcohol or taking sedatives before bedtime
  • Engaging in mouth and throat exercise
  • Losing some weight
  • Keeping the bedroom air moist
  • Using an anti-snoring mouthpiece
  • Changing sleeping position (sleeping by the side instead of facing upwards)
  • Clearing nasal passages for easy breathing
  • Exercising
  • Opting for medical procedures in severe cases

References

  1. Braver, H. M., Block, A. J., & Perri, M. G. (1995). Treatment for snoring. Combined weight loss, sleeping on the side, and nasal spray. Chest, 107(5), 1283–1288. https://doi.org/10.1378/chest.107.5.1283 
  2. Camacho, M., Guilleminault, C., Wei, J. M., Song, S. A., Noller, M. W., Reckley, L. K., Fernandez-Salvador, C., & Zaghi, S. (2018). Oropharyngeal and tongue exercises (myofunctional therapy) for snoring: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European archives of oto-rhino-laryngology : official journal of the European Federation of Oto-Rhino-Laryngological Societies (EUFOS): affiliated with the German Society for Oto-Rhino-Laryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, 275(4), 849–855. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00405-017-4848-5 
  3. J.G. Park. (2013). Snoring Encyclopedia of Sleep, Academic Press, Pages 265-268. ISBN 9780123786111, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-378610-4.00319-3 
  4. Nakano, H., Ikeda, T., Hayashi, M., Ohshima, E., & Onizuka, A. (2003). Effects of body position on snoring in apneic and non-apneic snorers. Sleep, 26(2), 169–172. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/26.2.169 
  5. Young, T., Finn, L., & Palta, M. (2001). Chronic nasal congestion at night is a risk factor for snoring in a population-based cohort study. Archives of internal medicine, 161(12), 1514–1519. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.161.12.1514 
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