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Beyond Annoying: How To Identify The Sounds Of A Troublesome Snore

When is a snore just annoying and when is it a sign of sleep apnea? Luckily, they sound pretty different.
Aleksandra Shutova / EyeEm
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When is a snore just annoying and when is it a sign of sleep apnea? Luckily, they sound pretty different.

An estimated 40% of adults in the U.S. snore. And, men, you tend to out-snore women. (Yes, this may explain why you get kicked or shoved at night!)

And despite the myththat snoring is a sign of deep sleep, there's really no upside to it.

"Snoring really does not demonstrate anything good, " says Erich Voigt, an ear, nose, and throat doctor and sleep specialist at New York University Langone Health. "You can have beautifully deep sleep in a silent sleep."

Snoring is never great news, but often it's harmless (other than the pain your sleeping partner may feel). In some cases, though, it's a sign of something serious.

When we sleep, if the air that moves through our nose and mouth has a clear passage, we can sleep silently. But when the airways are narrowed, we snore.

"Snoring is basically a vibration of the tissues inside of the airway," Voigt explains — that is, the roof of the mouth and the vertical folds of tissue that surround the tonsils.

A lot of factors can contribute to snoring, says Voigt. We can control some of the underlying triggers. For instance, drinking alcohol is linked to snoring. Alcohol tends to make the tissues within our mouths swell a bit, and alcohol can also change the quality of sleep.

"Your brain is sedated from alcohol, so the combination can make you snore worse," Voigt says.

Being overweight can also increase the likelihood of snoring. So, when people lose weight, this can reduce the amount they snore.

Other factors that contribute to snoring may be outside our control. There are physical obstructions, such as a large uvula or a deviated septum. In addition, allergies and upper respiratory infections can cause the tissues in the roof of the mouth to become floppy, swollen, or stretched out, Voigt says.

When is snoring just annoying and when is it a sign of a potentially serious problem? A light, rhythmic snore — that stays pretty steady — is common and tends to be harmless. "It might be bad for the bed partner, but it's not a big health problem," Voigt says.

But when snoring becomes loud and erratic, this can signal a problem. So, if you're concerned about the person you sleep with, what should you listen for?

"A crescendo where the snoring is getting louder and louder," Voigt explains, is the first sign. The crescendo is typically followed by periods of no sound, and then a gasp that can sound like a snort.

This pattern of snoring can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, which is a serious condition that can increase the risk of heart disease. What happens to people with this condition is that the airway will collapse in on itself and close. "And as the person is trying to breathe in, the air will not pass. That's what the apnea is," Voigt explains.

You can watch and listen to this YouTube video for a good demonstration of the sounds made by someone with sleep apnea.

"During the first minute he has regular rhythmic snoring," Voigt says. "Then, in the second minute he has a pause, (apnea) or no breathing, followed by a big gasp for air."

Often, people with sleep apnea don't wake to consciousness, so they don't know they have a problem. If you sleep with someone who snores, you're in a good position to help flag the issue. Then, it's best to get it checked out by a doctor who can diagnose the problem.

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Allison Aubrey
Allison Aubrey is a Washington-based correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She has reported extensively on the coronavirus pandemic since it began, providing near-daily coverage of new developments and effects. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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