Many of us snore at least some of the time, but it can be damaging for health and relationships.
Shut your mouth
We are designed so we breathe in and out through the nose. If you sleep with your mouth open, incoming air hits the soft tissue at the back of the throat and makes it vibrate, creating that characteristic noise. About 45% of adults snore sometimes, and 25% snore regularly – and mouth breathing is the most common cause. Some 10% of children snore, too, often due to enlarged adenoids that shrink by the age of seven. But while kids grow out of snoring, adults tend to get worse. You can try to keep your mouth shut with a chin strap that loops under the chin and over your head, or a mouth guard.
Open your nose
If your nasal passages are open, you are less likely to mouth-breathe or snore. Sterimar is a salt water spray, available over the counter, that washes out any nasal gunk and perks up the little hairs (cilia) that waft away allergens and dust. Steroid nasal sprays and antihistamines can help nasal congestion caused by allergies. Alcohol and smoking cause nasal congestion; if you can’t quit, try not to smoke in the four hours before you go to sleep and limit alcohol to two days a week. You may have a structural obstruction such as a deviated nasal septum from an old injury; press hard on one side of the nose and breathe in with your mouth shut, if the other side of the nose collapses inwards and air can’t get through then you’ve got an obstruction. Nasal strips that you tape across the nose or dilators that sit inside the blocked nostril may help. Surgery called a septoplasty (or “nose job”) straightens the nose and tries to reopen the nasal passages.
Weigh it up
A fat neck makes you snore by compressing the airways. Men store excess fat around the neck more than women, so they tend to snore more. Any man with a shirt collar size greater than 16½ is likely to be a snorer. Women with short, fat necks often snore, too. Losing weight will help if neck fat is the main problem.
Check your jaw
A receding jaw (retrognathia) can contribute to snoring as the tongue is more likely to fall back and obstruct the airway when you sleep. To check whether you have retrognathia, bite together on your back teeth; if your lower teeth are markedly behind the upper ones (overbite), then retrognathia is a distinct possibility. A mandibular advancement device may help. It is a hinged gadget that fits over the teeth and pushes the lower jaw forward. You can buy a cheap one online to check whether you can bear to wear one all night. Orthodontists can make bespoke (and potentially expensive) ones and NHS snoring clinics provide them free of charge.
It’s best to sleep on your side, not your back. You can buy a pillow that aims to prop you up on your side or try the old-fashioned trick of sewing a tennis ball on to the back of your pyjamas. The problem with the tennis ball idea is that many of us don’t have PJs and can’t sew, and anyway it disturbs your sleep by waking you up when you lie flat. A swift kick or sharp prod from an exasperated partner works in a similar way.
Get a diagnosis
Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) happens when your throat closes completely and you stop breathing for 10 seconds or more. Oxygen levels in the blood fall and the brain restarts breathing; often with a jolt, gasp or grunt. OSA is bad for health; it is associated with daytime sleepiness which can lead to accidents, high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke, diabetes and depression. You can do an online test to check whether you are at risk, download an app such as SnoreLab and see your GP for referral to a snoring clinic.
Rent, buy or wait for a CPAP pump
Moderate to severe OSA is most effectively treated by continuous positive airways pressure (CPAP) – a small pump that provides a continuous supply of compressed air into your nose and mouth through a mask to prevent your throat from closing. The machine makes a quiet hum – like a laptop – but not everyone can hack sleeping with a mask on. You can rent one for a week from the British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association for £100 to see whether it helps you. If it does, you can wait and get a CPAP free on the NHS, or consider buying one.
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