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NHS Contents


Snoring, sleep apnoea
Respiratory system
Snoring is a sign that breathing is being obstructed during sleep. The typical sound heard is actually the sound of the walls of the throat, the roof of the mouth and the base of the tongue vibrating. Normally, when a person lies down to sleep, the muscles behind the tongue that hold the throat open, relax and collapse on themselves. This leads to the airway narrowing and restricting the airflow in and out of the lungs. In most people, this narrowing has no effect and goes unnoticed. However, in others this narrowing becomes so much that it restricts breathing and leads to snoring. If the muscles completely collapse, no air can pass through and the person stops breathing altogether. This condition is called obstructive sleep apnoea. Fortunately, the body has a natural mechanism which detects this and forces the person to wake before suffocation occurs. However, this can become an ongoing cycle of suffocation and waking, occurring very many times a night without the person realising what is happening.

Most people snore at some time during their life, and it is estimated that about a quarter of people are regular snorers. Men are about twice as likely to snore as women. Men over the age of 50 who are overweight are particularly likely to be affected. Although snoring is not a serious problem and usually goes unnoticed by the person snoring, it can be particularly annoying for the person's partner and for other members of the household who may be affected by the noise.

The Sleep Apnoea Trust estimates that at least three in every thousand men have severe sleep apnoea. If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnoea can, because of excessive tiredness, increase the risk of accidents if driving or operating machinery and, in the long term, can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke.
Anything that restricts airflow through the throat during sleep can cause snoring and sleep apnoea. People who are overweight, especially if they have a thick neck (collar size of 17 and higher), are prone to snoring because of the extra pressure placed on the muscles around the throat. Smoking, colds and allergies can all irritate or block the nasal passages, which can lead to snoring. Alcohol and some sedatives are also to blame because they relax the throat and affect normal breathing. Sleeping on one's back increases snoring as the tongue falls towards the back of the throat and restricts the flow of air. There are more serious causes of snoring and these include damage to the nose or throat, and a malformed lower jaw. Snoring in children is mainly caused by enlarged tonsils.
The obvious symptom of snoring and sleep apnoea is the typical snorting and grunting sound made during sleep. Also, if the person experiences excessive tiredness during the day, especially during quiet activities like reading, watching television or long-distance driving, he or she may be suffering from heavy snoring or sleep apnoea at night. This is because sleep during the night is being severely disturbed, even though the person may not be aware that it is happening. The person sleeping with someone who has sleep apnoea may also notice the periods when breathing stops.
If snoring is particularly severe, nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is an effective treatment for sleep apnoea and works by delivering pressurised air through a mask that is worn at night. The pressurised air forces the throat open and allows normal breathing. There are also devices that can be inserted by dentists that push the lower jaw forward and, in doing so, help breathing. Surgery to correct blockages in the nose and throat is a last resort if nothing else has helped.
When to see your doctor
If you are suffering from heavy snoring or from obstructed breathing during the night, consult your doctor. If your condition is particularly severe, your doctor may arrange that you see a Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who will be able to investigate your problem and perhaps recommend CPAP or corrective surgery. Alternatively, your doctor may refer you to a Sleep Clinic that specialises in sleeping disorders.
Living with snoring
Simple lifestyle changes can help snoring and sleep apnoea. For example, it may help to stop smoking, cut down on alcohol and, if overweight, lose a few pounds. Take regular exercise to help strengthen muscles. Sleep on your side rather than on your back. Sleep in a well ventilated room. Try to get in the habit of breathing through your nose rather than through you mouth. If your nose is blocked, raise your pillow and sprinkle a few drops of eucalyptus oil or lavender oil on your pillow to help ease nasal congestion. Nasal strips applied across the nose can also help keep the nasal passages open and help you breathe more easily. Gum shields such as those used in sport can greatly help snoring and sleep apnoea.
Advice to partners and other family members
It can be very distressing living with someone who snores very loudly, especially when the snorer is blissfully unaware that his or her snoring is disturbing everyone else's night's sleep. However, try to support the person who snores and encourage them to make some of the lifestyle changes suggested above. If these measures do not work, encourage the person to seek medical advice to get help.
Useful Tips
  • Avoid drinking alcohol after 6pm
  • Try to give up smoking - see Give up Smoking section
  • If you are overweight, losing a few pounds will help
  • Try sleeping on your side or semi - propped up
Further information
Sleep Apnoea Trust

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