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Snoring: Causes, treatment and prevention

What is snoring?

Snoring causes a person to make snorting and other noises in their sleep. Snoring is very common, with around 40% of us snoring. It isn’t usually a cause for concern, unless the sleep of a person or their partner is disturbed.

However snoring can be a sign of a serious medical condition, such as obstructive sleep apnoea, which makes the snorer stop breathing for several seconds to up to two minutes. This results in decreased oxygen in the blood, which can lead to headaches and fatigue the following day.

Sleep apnoea is associated with a variety of other chronic medical conditions including high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and stroke. It also increases the risk of accidents. Research has linked snoring to diabetes.

What causes snoring?

Snoring is caused by vibration of the soft palate (the soft part of the roof of the mouth) as the lungs strain to inhale oxygen through obstructed airways. Typically, this occurs when the muscles that keep the airways open become too relaxed or excess tissue accumulates nearby and obstructs air flow. Any condition or substance that promotes muscle relaxation or a build-up of fatty tissue can have this effect. These include:

  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Taking sedating medications such as sleeping pills, cold medicines, or antihistamines.
  • Sleeping on an overly soft or large pillow, or sleeping on your back.
  • Being overweight.

Obstruction of the airways can also be caused by throat or nasal deformities, such as an excessively long soft palate or uvula (the pendant-shaped tissue in the back of the throat), or a deviated nasal septum.

In children, enlarged tonsils often cause snoring. Any ailment that makes bronchial airways constrict, such as asthma, can lead to obstruction and snoring. Smoking, which irritates the airways, can also make snoring worse.

What are the treatments for snoring?

There are numerous products that claim to treat snoring. However, in most cases, simple lifestyle changes can stop snoring. They include:

  • Don't drink alcohol within three hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid sedatives and antihistamines, especially at bedtime.
  • If you're overweight, take regular exercise to lose some weight and also reduce your calorie intake.
  • If you have allergies, try to eliminate allergens in the bedroom, such as removing pets from the bedroom, and regularly washing your bed linen in hot water to remove house dust mites and any mould spores.
  • Sleep on your side.
  • Use a humidifier if the air in your home is too dry.

There are a variety of products designed to help you sleep on your side - a position that can decrease snoring - which can help some people. There are also products designed to widen the nasal passages, such as nasal strips or nasal support devices, which may work in some people with congestion or nasal abnormalities.

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