Long considered little more than a nuisance, snoring is no longer something to ignore -- to the delight of frustrated bed partners everywhere. To sleep physicians, snoring is a sign that something's up.
"When you are snoring, you're spending too much energy to breathe," says Dr. M. Safwan Badr, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Snoring is like fever for a general internist -- it tells you somethig is going on, but it doesn't tell you what."
Snoring occurs when a person's airways have narrowed, causing the air that passes through it as we breathe to vibrate the soft tissue of the throat. "In principle, snoring is not normal," he says. As a physician, he says he would want to know why that person is snoring in order to provide the best treatment, rather than have a snorer attempt to take her medical care into her own hands. "I would make sure that the body isn't telling us to look for sleep-disordered breathing or sleep apnea," he says.
During sleep apnea, snorers actually stop breathing, sometimes hundreds of times a night. It's important to receive an accurate diagnosis because of sleep apnea's many implications in other health conditions. Sleep apnea raises risk of heart attack, depression and diabetes. But even if snoring is due to a case of seasonal allergies or nasal congestion, there are treatments that can improve those conditions that only a physician would think to suggest, he says.
Still, many snorers and their aggravated bed partners are looking for a little at-home relief. Badr walked us through the options on the market that might work -- and what's not worth your time or money.
The verdict: Skip 'em. Badr says these usually don't work. A narrowing of nasal passages that's severe enough to cause snoring happens deeper than can be fixed with a sticky strip. "They may or may not affect the acoustics," he says, "but not the mechanics of the airway." In other words, a frustrated bed partner may hear quieter snoring from someone wearing a nasal strip, but "the phenomenon will not go away," he says.
The verdict: Try it! Excess weight can add tissue to the neck that presses and restricts airways, leading to the vibrations that produce snores, says Badr. "Left to their own devices, people who keep adding a few pounds every year may develop sleep apnea, but if they gained the weight and then started snoring, losing the weight may help alleviate the snoring." Not to mention, losing excess weight carries a number of additional health benefits!
Sleeping On Your Side
The verdict: Try it! Because there's greater pressure on the throat when you're lying on your back, shifting to your side can really quiet that snore, says Badr. Back-sleeping snorers are probably used to frequent elbowing from their bed partners, he says. To save yourself those bruises, experts recommend a crafty trick: Sew a tennis ball into the front pocket of an old t-shirt, then wear the shirt backwards to bed. Lying on your back will be pretty uncomfortable, so you won't be tempted to drift that way in your slumber!
Sleep With A Humidifier
The verdict: Consider it. If your snoring is due to nasal congestion or allergies, and your nasal congestion or allergies are worse in dry air, sleeping with a humidifier might help, says Badr, and it certainly won't hurt. However, he says, "there may be a kernel of truth in a lot of these home remedies, but they're probably not the whole story." Believing you can cure snoring with the switch of a humidifier minimizes the gravity of snoring, rather than encouraging you to bring it to the attention of your physician, he says.
Saying No To A Nightcap
The verdict: Try it! An occasional snorer may find the problem exacerbated by an adult beverage before bed, says Badr. That's because alcohol relaxes those muscles keeping the airways open. Alcohol before bed also leads to less restful, more disturbed sleep, so it's smart to skip the nightcap even if you don't snore.
The verdict: Skip 'em. While it's true that different neck positions can expand or narrow the airways, chances are you're not going to stay put throughout the night, says Badr. Eliminating snoring is usually not as simple as buying a new pillow, he says, and there hasn't been any scientific evidence to support their use.
The verdict: Consider it. The FDA has approved nasal valves for the treatment of sleep apnea, says Badr, and they may be available over the counter for snoring as well. However, they're one-time use, and not exactly cheap, he says.
The verdict: Consider one if you've exhausted other options. In someone with sleep apnea who either doesn't respond to or doesn't tolerate treatment with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a type of mouthguard that moves the jaw can be helpful. Badr says these devices may also provide some benefit for people who snore, but without a sleep apnea diagnosis to show your insurance company, expect a hefty price tag.
The verdict: Consider it infrequently. "CPAP is the gold standard," says Badr, and if your snoring is so bad you'd consider surgery, you probably do have sleep apnea, he says. Surgery would only be considered in cases where CPAP treatment didn't prove effective, and a team of physicians and specialists would have to perform a comprehensive sleep assessment to come up with the best plan, he says. Basically, sleep apnea or snoring surgery is not to be taken lightly.
Bottom line: Don't ignore your snoring, especially if you have other health conditions or feel tired during the day, Badr says. "People tend to explain away their symptoms, and they could be missing something."