When do I need to worry about snoring? Here's what sleep experts say.

A person sleeping
Snoring is usually nothing to be concerned about, but a harsh, rattling snore can indicate sleep apnea. (Getty Images) (Getty images)

While your partner may find your snoring simply bothersome, the unpleasant sounds you make during sleep could also indicate an underlying health condition.

According to statistics from the Sleep Foundation, snoring affects approximately 57% (nearly 73 million) of men, 40% (more than 52 million) of women and 27% of children in the U.S. The occasional snore can occur for a variety of reasons and is usually innocuous, but in some cases, it could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a serious disorder linked to heart disease.

In fact, recent research presented at the 2023 European Respiratory Society International Congress found that OSA patients who used a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine as they slept each night decreased their risk of dying by all-cause mortality by 40%, along with reducing their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 36% and lessening their chances of landing in the hospital with a heart-related issue by 18%.

So how do you know if your nighttime noises are harmless or possibly harmful — and what can be done to remedy the issue? Two sleep specialists weigh in.

What’s happening?

The National Institute on Aging defines snoring as sounds that occur while sleeping when breathing is blocked caused by tissues at the top of the airway that strike each other and vibrate. Several factors can lead to airway blockage, including nasal congestion, smoking, alcohol and sedative use, family history and gender.

“Snoring risk is a mix of body type — heavier individuals tend to snore more — body position — snoring is increased when you’re in the supine position or on your back — and age, since risk increases with age,” Dr. Chris Winter, author of The Sleep Solution and host of the Sleep Unplugged podcast, tells Yahoo Life.

A physical obstruction, such as big tonsils, a small mouth with a big tongue or adenoids (lymphoid tissue that sits at the back of the nasal passage), can also block the flow of air, Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Sleep Doctor, tells Yahoo Life.

Do I need to worry?

Frequency and intensity can determine if snoring may be hazardous to your health. Light, sporadic snoring does not require medical attention. However, loud snoring at least three times a week that is accompanied by a stop-and-start breathing pattern, choking, gasping for air and restless sleep — followed by morning headaches and excessive daytime fatigue — are signs of obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that occurs when the upper airway becomes blocked many times during sleep, reducing or completely stopping airflow, according to the National Institutes of Health.

About 30 million Americans have OSA, yet only 6 million people have been diagnosed with this condition, according to the American Medical Association. Plus, the American Heart Association states that adults with OSA have higher rates of high blood pressure, stroke, coronary heart disease and heart failure.

Both sleep doctors state that not everyone who snores has OSA, but regular, disruptive snoring that is not attributed to OSA could lead to other health issues.

“Snoring is technically considered sleep disordered breathing, meaning that you are not getting 100% full air into your lungs, and this can have health consequences over time,” explains Breus. Furthermore, he says there are a few health issues linked to snoring, including chronic congestion and GERD, or reflux.

“In addition to snoring being a sign for sleep apnea — a condition that poses significant health risk — there is emerging evidence that snoring alone can be related to negative health outcomes, particularly cognitive issues and cardiac problems, such as high blood pressure,” explains Winter.

Results from a study conducted at the University of Texas at Dallas suggests that snoring can interrupt processes that affect brain health, while researchers at the Henry Ford Hospital found that isolated snoring could lead to thickening or abnormalities in the carotid artery (two major blood vessels that supply the brain with oxygenated blood) — a precursor to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

“I did an entire podcast on this topic,” adds Winter.

What can I do about it?

If you are not suffering from OSA, Breus recommends several lifestyle strategies that can minimize nighttime snoring. For starters, avoid snoozing on your back. “Try wearing a tight-fitting T-shirt with a small pocket on the back,” he says. “Then place a tennis ball or baseball in the pocket. This helps keep you from rolling onto your back.”

Other natural remedies Breus suggests include elevating your head while sleeping (consider using a wedge pillow that raises the upper body), refraining from alcohol and sedating medications before bedtime, quitting smoking and losing weight. “Although this management strategy doesn’t work for everyone, some people notice a decrease in snoring after weight loss,” he says.

Over-the-counter antisnoring devices, such as mouthpieces or mouth guards, can be a cost-effective workaround for mitigating this problem, notes Breus. “These devices may help keep the airway open and reduce snoring by positioning the lower jaw forward during sleep or retraining the tongue.”

If you’re dealing with sinus congestion, he suggests speaking with a physician. “Some decongestants can cause side effects or worsen nasal congestion over time, so talk with your health care provider before using nasal decongestants to treat snoring,” continues Breus.

However, adults struggling with OSA will likely be prescribed CPAP therapy by their doctor, the most common treatment. “A CPAP machine regulates the flow of air to help keep the airway from becoming blocked or collapsing,” explains Breus. “If sleep apnea is treated, it should treat all of your snoring.”

The main takeaway

Even though snoring is a widespread occurrence, it shouldn’t be ignored. “Chronic snoring may also affect the quality of your sleep and possibly interfere with your bed partner’s sleep,” says Breus. “If you feel that snoring has become a problem, it’s a good idea to consult with a doctor.”

Winter agrees. “I see no reason for an individual who snores frequently to not speak to a sleep specialist or their primary care physician about the issue,” he says. “Home sleep studies are easy and can get to the bottom of the problem quickly.”