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Snoring Haunts Millions of Americans

Nocturnal noises can wreak havoc on relationships, and sometimes your health

FRIDAY, Dec. 29, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Most people don't take snoring seriously. But maybe they should.

Those nocturnal snorts, whistles and wheezes can actually cause serious problems -- for your health and your relationships if your snoring keeping others awake at night.

Snoring affects a surprisingly large number of people. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) estimates that nearly one in three Americans snores occasionally, and 37 million are habitual snorers.

"Primary snoring is a pretty common entity," said Dr. Bradley Rowens, director of the Michigan Institute for Sleep at St. John Providence Park Hospital, in Novi, Mich. "Probably 40 percent of males between 30 and 60 years old, and probably 30 percent of women in that age group snore."

Sometimes, snoring is a sign of a more serious problem -- obstructive sleep apnea. In sleep apnea, people actually stop breathing for several seconds. This disorder can contribute to high blood pressure and even cause stroke, according to the National Institutes of Health.

However, it can be hard for the average person to distinguish between heavy snoring and apnea, according to Susan Zafarlotfi, clinical director of the Institute for Sleep-Wake Disorders and The Breath and Lung Institute at Hackensack University Medical Center, in New Jersey. For that reason, anyone who habitually snores should see their doctor or a sleep specialist to determine if the problem is sleep apnea, rather than ordinary snoring, she said.

Rowens said primary snoring is typically a regular, monotonous sound -- "a sawing-wood type of noise, not punctuated with stopping breathing, squeaking or gasps."

For most people, snoring doesn't pose a great health risk, although the NSF said snoring can disrupt your sleep to the point where you may experience headaches, fatigue and concentration problems during the day. For your partner, however, their lack of sleep -- called environmental insomnia -- can cause these symptoms and more.

"Snoring definitely causes difficulties for the partner," said Zafarlotfi, who added that most people come in to have their snoring evaluated after prompting from their partner.

Snoring occurs when the airway becomes partially blocked. The noise originates in the back of the mouth where the tongue, uvula, upper throat and soft palate meet. If these structures rub together, the resulting noise from the vibrations creates snoring.

Common causes of snoring are excess weight, which narrows the airway making it more likely that the parts will rub together; nasal congestion, either from allergies or a cold; alcohol or sedating medications that relax the airways; or anatomical defects, such as a deviated septum.

Treatments for snoring often depend on the cause. If enlarged adenoids or a deviated septum are causing your snoring, surgery may be necessary.

However, most doctors recommend lifestyle changes first. These include losing weight, exercising more and eliminating alcohol and other sedating drugs before bedtime.

"Weight is a big issue, because excess weight narrows the airway," said Zafarlotfi.

Quitting smoking is also helpful, according to Rowens.

For many people, making sure they don't sleep on their back does the trick. To keep yourself from rolling onto your back in the middle of the night, Rowens suggests sewing a tennis ball into the back of your pajamas.

If nasal congestion is the cause of your snoring, nasal decongestants or antihistamines to control your allergies may help. However, antihistamines can also contribute to the problem because many are sedating. Rowens said that nasal dilating strips are helpful for some people.

There are also dental devices that help keep the tongue in place to prevent snoring, Rowens said. And, new procedures are being developed all the time. The latest involves inserting small rods into the back of the throat, stiffening the soft palate and making it less likely to vibrate, he said.

If your snoring is caused by sleep apnea, the gold standard of non-surgical treatment is called CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), Zafarlotfi said. Using a specially designed nasal mask or pillows, CPAP delivers air into the airway, with the flow of air creating enough pressure when you inhale to keep the airway open, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery.

Other treatments aren't generally recommended, because they can stop the snoring, but the apnea is still present.

More information

To learn more about snoring, visit the National Sleep Foundation.

SOURCES: Susan Zafarlotfi, Ph.D., clinical director, Institute for Sleep-Wake Disorders, and The Breath and Lung Institute, Hackensack University Medical Center, N.J.; Bradley Rowens, M.D., director, Michigan Institute for Sleep, St. John Providence Park Hospital, Novi, Mich.; National Sleep Foundation
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