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Why the Doctor Treats Snoring Seriously

The movies and television often depict snoring as funny, even hilarious. But snoring is no joke: It's a medical problem that can have serious health and social implications.

Up to half of adults snore at some time. Of those, half are habitual snorers who may keep their partners awake just about every night by snoring in most sleeping positions.

When you hear someone snoring, it means air is not flowing freely through the back of the throat. The sound occurs when air causes vibration of the soft palate and the uvula, the tiny pink flap of tissue that hangs down at the rear of your throat.

The average snorer is a man in his early 40s or older. In fact, snoring affects men more often than women. The risk increases with age for both men and women.  

Snoring may be caused by a number of things, including enlarged tonsils or allergies. About 20 to 50 percent of snorers may have obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which throat tissue obstructs the airway so badly that the snorer actually stops breathing. (Apnea means cessation of breath.) Obstructive sleep apnea is defined as the presence of more than 30 apnea episodes, each for 10 seconds or more, during a sleep period of seven hours. In severe cases, breathing may stop for 60 to 90 seconds up to 500 times a night. Each time, people awaken very briefly, but generally aren't aware that they did.

People with sleep apnea seldom feel well-rested, and decreased alertness during the day makes them more prone to accidents. Severe cases can cause a drop in oxygen, straining the heart. This is especially bad for people with heart disease or high blood pressure.

The standard treatments for sleep apnea involves weight loss, change of sleeping positions, evaluation of the upper airway for obstruction (and correction where necessary), and wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask on the nose while sleeping. Your doctor may also recommend other therapies, including a bite guard fitted by a dentist to move the lower jaw forward slightly or even surgery.

To limit snoring

  • Control your weight. Extra pounds can aggravate snoring.

  • Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills and tranquilizers. They blunt the body's drive to breathe, worsening sleep apnea.

  • Sleep on your side. On your back, the tongue tends to fall into the throat, reducing air flow. You snore as you breathe through your mouth to compensate.

  • Keep a routine schedule with adequate sleep. Lack of rest may worsen snoring.

  • Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.