Trying to get ZZZs next to a chainsaw is no snooze fest.
“Almost everyone snores on occasion,” says Sreekrishna K. Donepudi, MD, otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon with Memorial Hermann Medical Group Sugar Land MultiSpecialty.
About 90 million American adults—37 million consistently—snore, reports the National Sleep Foundation.
And it’s not just adults: Three of five kids raise a racket occasionally. So how do you mute the bedlam your bedmate or offspring makes?
Dr. Donepudi, an ear, nose and throat specialist and surgeon who deals with nighttime noise daily, delivers perspective—and solutions.
What Causes Such Commotion?
According to Dr. Donepudi, while you slumber, your throat’s muscles relax, your tongue falls backward and your throat narrows. If there’s too little space, your throat’s walls vibrate to help you breathe—and the narrower the airway, the bigger the buzz.
Anatomical anomalies such as a curved wall between the nostrils, known as a deviated septum, or oversized tonsils, adenoids or tongue can contribute to the clamor by blocking the space needed to breathe. Sleeping on one’s back also causes the tongue to fill the throat cavity.
Racket-raisers may be born with the problem, as in people with Down’s Syndrome, or acquire it later on, due to a medical issue, such as a low-functioning thyroid (hypothyroidism).
Excess weight—a Body Mass Index over 30—expands tissues in the nose and throat and also makes it harder to breathe, cranking up the volume. You can determine your BMI here.
Other ailments can swell tissues and cramp breathing space, such as allergies, sinus infections, acid reflux or repeated throat infections. Muscle relaxers, antihistamines, sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs that you may take to aid slumber may backfire by relaxing throat muscles, which makes them limp and thus more likely to rattle. The same goes for nightcaps.
And irony of irony, chronic sleep deprivation also can lead you to snore more yourself. Back at ya, bedmate.
Can Snoring Become a Habit?
Habitual snoring occurs in 44% of middle-aged men and 28% of middle-aged women.
“Airway tissues get floppier, so the snoring gets worse over the years,” he says.
That, in turn, can cause marital discord. “That leads to anxiety, stress and an unhealthy state of mind,” Dr. Donepudi says. “The mind and body are linked, so that can lead to further decline of your health.”
In response, one-fourth of couples sleep in separate beds or rooms, reports a 2018 National Sleep Foundation poll.
When Should Snoring Become Worrisome?
Snorting, gasping, choking, labored breathing or up to 10-second bouts of no breathing signal a greater concern: sleep apnea, a medical condition affecting up to 15% of adults and 2% of children.
“Incidence is climbing every year because of the growing obesity problem in our country,” Dr. Donepudi says.
Such disrupted dozing can lead to headaches, irritability, hyperactivity, impulsiveness or daytime drowsiness. Sufferers also may fall asleep while at work, at school, driving—or even in front of a blasting TV.
“Sleep apnea can aggravate asthma and is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke,” he says. “There’s a domino effect, where one may lead to another.”
Doctors can confirm sleep apnea via overnight feedback from sensors to check breathing, oxygenation and brainwaves. Such studies can be done in sleep labs or at home.
“Such polysomnograms record nose, mouth and eyelid movement,” Dr. Donepudi says.
In labs, wires also can be attached to limbs to check for restless leg syndrome, involuntary nighttime movements increasingly common with age— afflicting one-third of those over age 60.
What Are Snoring Solutions?
Should you or your child be diagnosed with sleep apnea, a continuous positive airway pressure mask (CPAP) can be fitted during the lab study. This usually keeps breathing steady throughout shut-eye.
“Just a few millimeters in the size of the airway at the back of your throat makes a huge difference,” Dr. Donepudi says.
But that’s not the sole solution, nor the simplest.
Mum may be the word for those who take allergy tablets or shots, or inhale salt-water or steroidal nasal sprays at night. The snorer also can wear breathing strips at the nostrils, be custom-fit with a mouth guard by their dentist (to expand space behind the tongue) or don sleepwear with pockets along the spine to force the snorer to sleep on his or her side.
Losing weight and quitting smoking take time and effort but will benefit health overall. “In many cases, snoring is reversed with weight loss,” says Dr. Donepudi.
Physical therapy also can be prescribed to strengthen the jaw, tongue and throat to fix mild snoring.
If all else fails, surgery may be needed. Tonsils, adenoids or polyps (all soft-tissue in the throat) can be removed. A deviated septum can be straightened, and the mouth’s palate can be stiffened with an implant.
“When I’ve done (tonsil) surgery on kids with sleep apnea, at the three-month follow-up parents will say they have a different child, who sits, listens and does well in school,” says Dr. Donepudi. “There’s definitely a link between sleep apnea and hyperactivity.”
Typically last resort is more involved surgery to trim excess limp tissue. “That’s pretty painful,” he says.
Alas, there’s one question that might keep you up at night, which Dr. Donepudi cannot answer: How can the racket-reaper sleep through all that commotion?