What is Snoring?

While snoring itself may be harmless, it can be a symptom of a more serious medical condition known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) or upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS).

What Causes Snoring?

Snoring is caused by a narrow airway. With normal breathing, air passes through the nose and past flexible structures such as the soft palate, that “dangley” thing called the uvula and the tongue. When you fall asleep, muscles that helped keep the air passage open sometimes relax too much. And as the airway narrows the tissues vibrate. That’s because the same amount of air must travel faster through a slender tube than through a broad one. This rapidly moving air causes the soft tissues of the throat (tonsils, soft palate, uvula and tongue) to vibrate the sound of snoring. It’s like putting a flag in front of a fan; the faster the fan, the greater the flutter.

Why is the airway narrow in snorers? Things that take up space in the airway reduce its diameter. Structures that can take up space in the airway are large tonsils, a long soft palate or uvula, and in people who are overweight, excessive tissue. The most common cause of a narrowed airway is a tongue that relaxes too much during sleep and gets sucked back into the airway with each breath taken.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Apnea occurs when the tongue is sucked completely against the back of the throat, the airway is blocked and breathing stops. Once that happens, the harder the sleeper tries to breathe, the tighter the airway seal becomes. It’s like trying to drink through a straw that’s stuck in a lump of ice cream. The harder you suck, the flatter the straw becomes.

The airway obstruction won’t clear until the brain’s oxygen level falls low enough to partially awaken the sleeper. The tongue then returns to a more normal position, and the airway seal is broken — usually with a loud gasp. Sometimes the apnea lasts for a minute or more with lowered oxygen levels reaching half the usual amount! This disturbed sleep can occur many times and hour.

Individuals with OSA have increased risk of developing high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes and greater probability of an auto accident! Medical bills pile up. An individual with untreated OSA gets socked with increased medical problems and bills – Average yearly hospital care costs are about twice that of the average population.

Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome

Sleepers that suffer from upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS) possess many of the symptoms of OSA but the breathing is not completely halted. The breathing efforts that cause the snoring sound are enough of a struggle to disturb the sleep to a less restful, less restorative sleep. These repeated disturbances cause daytime fatigue and other health problems that can be just as severe as that found in OSA.


It’s important to remember that the only accurate way to be sure that you have OSA or UARS is to have a sleep study either at home or in a hospital sleep center with a qualified sleep physician. Sleepiness scales, snoring and other indicators help focus one on the possible need to check with your doctor regarding the connection between symptoms and snoring. See your healthcare professional for advice if you have been told that you snore, awaken gasping for breath or if you are excessively sleepy during the day.