It was just like any other morning: Shower, dress, quick breakfast and go. But wait—is that Terry on the couch? Did you get into a blow-out fight you can’t remember? “Worse,” Terry informs you. Your stomach drops. “You were snoring. All. Night. Long,” he tells you. “But I’m not a snorer!” you declare. The dark circles under Terry’s eyes beg to differ. You’re not alone. So many of us are here wondering, why am I snoring all of a sudden? What does it mean? Is it bad for our health or sleep hygiene? So many questions. We chatted with David B. Schwartz, D.D.S., Diplomate American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine and President of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine to help us understand why we snore and what to do about it.
Common causes of snoring
As Dr. Schwartz explains, there’s not one single cause of snoring or even place of origin—the nose, the back of the throat or base of the tongue. One of the main reasons for snoring is some type of vibration or obstruction— enlarged turbinates (soft tissues of the nose), tonsils in the back of the throat or a deviated septum. Says Dr. Schwartz, “These vibrating soft tissues create the noise we call snoring.” The other main reason, he expands, is the relaxation of the tongue and the muscles of the back of the throat that can collapse when a person sleeps or is on their back. In other words, snoring is typically a (loud) sign of something else going on with your breathing.
Is snoring a real problem or just kinda annoying?
There is definitely an annoying aspect to snoring, or as Dr. Schwartz puts it, “psychosocial concerns.” Think: Disrupting your sleeping partner, housemates or roommates. But Dr. Schwartz warns that snoring is probably never benign. For instance, he says there “are concerns that it can impact the carotid arteries in a negative way, and snoring can be the beginning symptom of obstructive sleep apnea.” There are also issues like dryness of the mouth, which can lead to increased dental decay. (Hmm, the more you know.) Ultimately, Dr. Schwartz shares, “We really want nasal breathing to be the dominant source of airflow to our lungs.”
At what age does snoring typically start?
“Snoring can start very young—as early as 3 years old,” says Dr. Schwartz. And with young patients, it is typically a symptom of something of concern like large tonsils or adenoid tissue blocking airflow. So, if a child is snoring, they need to be evaluated by a pediatric ENT and possibly a sleep specialist as well.
What about people who really only snore once in a while?
Three words: Environment, alcohol and smoking.
How your environment affects snoring:
When allergens kick in during hay fever season, the humidity changes during the winter months or you’re stuffed up with a cold, mouth breathing goes up and, according to Dr. Schwartz, there’s a greater chance the tongue will fall back into the airway and cause snoring.
How alcohol affects snoring:
When it comes to alcohol, whether it was an all-night rager or one glass of red wine, alcohol of any amount can have a profound effect on the brain’s responsiveness. Think of breathing like driving a car, Dr. Schwartz says. If the driver is impaired, they’re not gonna drive great. Same goes with sleeping. Alcohol—or other central-nervous-depressing drugs—causes a central nervous depression, and that diminishes the responsive nature of the brain, nervous and muscle systems. Long story short: The communication lines from the brain to the throat take a hit, and the muscles in your throat become more likely to collapse during sleep.
How smoking affects snoring:
Smoking, however, is a bit more complicated. “First, the smoke itself dries the tissues in the back of the throat making more friction for the airflow,” Dr. Schwartz explains. This leads to less saliva, more friction and more vibration. “The other factor is the small blood vessels in the throat that become compromised due to low oxygen, which affects how the brain and throat muscles respond to the challenges of oxygen dropping and pressure sensitivity within the airway.”
Signs your snoring is a health concern
Daytime sleepiness, nocturia (or waking to urinate during the night), tooth grinding, multiple wakeups throughout the night, lack of dreaming—these, says Dr. Schwartz, can all be signs that your snoring should be further evaluated. “When you combine these symptoms with already diagnosed health issues such as hypertension, diabetes, a-fib, thyroid disease, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and various other health concerns, the likelihood of obstructive sleep apnea is greater,” he explains.
Common misconceptions about snoring
For Dr. Schwartz, the most unhelpful phrase he hears is "benign snoring." For him, it insinuates that there is nothing wrong with snoring, when in reality, snoring is a symptom of something that typically has to do with breathing…which, ya know, is kinda a big deal. And let’s not forget, he adds, snoring can be deeply frustrating to other people trying to sleep around you.
What kinds of treatments are helpful for snoring? (And what are the least helpful?)
Back sleeper? Try a side-sleeping positional pillow as snoring can be exacerbated by sleeping on your back, Dr. Schwartz explains. Popular non-surgical treatments such as a mandibular advancement device, which a qualified dentist can make for you, help orient the mouth in sleep to keep muscles from collapsing (think of it like a nightguard). There’s also the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which is more cumbersome, and its noise can disturb bed partners, but it can work very well for those who tolerate it. There are also surgical interventions such as turbinate, tonsil or uvula removal. For any of these treatments, the results aren’t always curative. For many snorers, their medical provider may suggest losing weight first in order to make breathing easier. And the most important step is to visit a doctor who can diagnose and offer treatment options.