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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. It's 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 2 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 but, in most cases, simple lifestyle changes can do the trick. Here are 10 tips that may help stop snoring.

  1. Don't drink alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime. Drinking alcohol before going to sleep causes muscles near the airway to slacken.
  2. Avoid sleeping pills or other sedatives and sedating medications such as some antihistamines. Although they help you go to sleep, they can relax your neck muscles, making your snoring worse.
  3. Quit smoking. Smoking causes nasal and lung congestion, a major cause of snoring.
  4. If you're overweight, try to lose weight with exercise and eating less.
  5. 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.
  6. Sleep on your side instead of your back. 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. While heavy snorers will snore in any position, people with moderate snoring tend to snore only when sleeping on their backs. One helpful trick is to sew a pocket onto the back of your nightclothes and insert a tennis ball. This will make it uncomfortable for you to lie on your back - and prompt you to turn on your side during sleep.
  7. Try sleeping without a pillow. Pillows can contribute to airway obstruction by bending your neck out of alignment.
  8. There are products designed to widen the nasal passages, such as nasal strips or nasal support devices.
  9. Consider a humidifier if the air in your bedroom is too dry and this makes you snore.
  10. Other products include pills, sprays and herbal products that claim to decrease nasal congestion and devices to correct mouth breathing. These may not have been thoroughly studied, so caution is advised.
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