Snoring – that raspy, snorty, rattly, overall-somewhat-unpleasant noise emanating from your partner’s open mouth as they sleep (and while you don’t sleep). Though most people will snore at some point in their lives, for others (and their bed partners) it can be a real problem and even indicate a more serious underlying condition.

At the heart (or throat?) of it, snoring is due to a narrowed airway. As the tissues of the throat relax during sleep, pushing air through this narrowed tube causes the tissues to vibrate. This is what results in the noise. The narrower the airways, the more force required to push through each breath, the greater the tissue vibration, the louder the snoring. But what causes the muscles and soft tissues of the throat to narrow to the point of snoring?


Some people are just naturally built to snore. This can include physical variations or abnormalities in anatomy such as:

  • A low and thick soft palate (the muscular tissue at the back of your mouth towards the opening of the throat)
  • A large or elongated uvula (the dangly thing at the back of the roof of your mouth)
  • Deviated nasal septum (the cartilage separating your two nostrils)
  • A large tongue
  • Large tonsils or adenoids

Chronic Nasal Congestion

Having a constantly stuffy nose can make it difficult for air to flow through. There are a number of reasons for chronic nasal congestion, including allergies or a deviated septum. Even a dry environment can cause your nasal passages to swell and become congested. In some cases, depending on the cause, you may find your nose happy and cooperative during the day, but congested and snorty only at night.

Alcohol, Medications, and Smoking

Alcohol and other sedatives before bed can cause the airway muscles to relax too much, leading them to collapse and result in snoring.

Smoking cigarettes can also lead to snoring during sleep, though the exact reason for this isn’t yet clear. One theory is that tobacco inhalation results in inflammation of the upper airways and subsequent swelling of these tissues, which narrows the space.

Sleeping Position

Many people will already be aware that sleeping on your back as opposed to your front or side makes you more likely to snore. This is because of the effects of that little thing called gravity, which can cause your airway tissues to sag as you sleep in what’s known as the supine position.

Other Risk Factors

Other traits associated with an increased likelihood of snoring include male gender, being overweight or obese, and a family history of snoring. Older people are also more likely to snore as the muscles of the tongue and upper airways can weaken with age.

A Word About Obstructive Sleep Apnea

A common sleep disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is often associated with snoring. However, not everyone who snores has OSA. Both children and adults can suffer from OSA.

OSA is characterized by frequent pauses in breathing during sleep. This is a problem because it means your body is regularly being deprived of oxygen, even if for only several seconds. Symptoms of OSA are often identified by someone else noticing that you stop breathing during your sleep, followed by a sudden choking, gasping, or snorting as breathing restarts. In addition to this, you may suspect you have OSA if you often wake up feeling tired and unrefreshed, feel excessively tired during the day, or wake up with a dry mouth and/or a headache.

Other than disturbing all other people trying to sleep within earshot of your snoring, OSA has been linked to a number of other health issues. These include high blood pressure (hypertension), depression and other changes in mood, daytime fatigue, difficulties in concentration, learning and behavioral challenges in children, and an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.

Even if snoring isn’t a bother (in other words, you live alone or everyone else in the house has invested in really great earplugs), OSA should still be treated due to the associated complications it can bring. Your family physician, ENT doctor, or sleep specialist can order a series of tests to assess you for obstructive sleep apnea and figure out the best management strategy.

Treatment for Snoring

As with most health conditions, the appropriate management for snoring depends on the underlying cause. For example, if you find that you snore the most after having a couple of glasses of whisky just before bed, it might be an idea to cut back on the tipple or at least move this particular indulgence to a few hours earlier. If your snoring is worse when you roll onto your back at night, you may want to consider a pillow that helps to keep your head and/or body lying to the side.

Depending on the underlying cause, your doctor will most likely start with lifestyle modifications to help reduce your snoring. Losing weight can help, as can quitting smoking. If snoring is due to something like nasal congestion from allergy, managing your allergies with antihistamines or other medications might be the answer. Narrowed nasal passages from a deviated septum can often be fixed with a surgical procedure known as a septoplasty.

Not all cases of snoring need treatment but if it’s becoming a real problem in your relationships or you suspect it might be associated with obstructive sleep apnea, it’s always better to get it checked out – both for your sake and your housemates’!