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Snoring and sleep apnoea
Dr Sally Beech Reviewed by Dr Sally Beech, Dentist

Problematic breathing can impact your sleep, which means it can impact your quality of life. A dentist may be able to help.

Quality of sleep is an important factor in your health and well-being. That’s why snoring and other sleep-related breathing problems might be more than just an annoyance for you or your partner.

Health risks can become even more serious if you experience sleep apnoea, a kind of breathing disturbance that causes halting breaths and gasps for air throughout your sleep.

You should speak with a doctor or sleep specialist about any breathing problems you may have, but a dentist might be able to help too. Some dentists are qualified to offer treatments like night splits and other oral devices which help manage these conditions. Also many sleep related breathing problems can have oral implications so it is important to discuss this with your dentist.

Snoring symptoms

It’s not always easy to tell if you’re snoring because, well, you’re asleep! That’s why many of us rely on family members or partners to tell us if we’re snoring.

But sometimes there are side effects of snoring that you may be able to notice yourself, including:

  • sore throat or dry mouth when you wake up
  • headaches, especially in the morning
  • consistent, excessive sleepiness or a feeling that you’re not really rested
  • frequently needing to urinate throughout the night
  • difficulty concentrating (in children, this might contribute to behavioural or academic issues).
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Types of snoring and potential solutions

A lot of factors can contribute to snoring, which is a sound produced by the soft tissues in your mouth, throat or nose. Snoring occurs when the muscles of the airway relax too much during sleep and vibrate or become obstructed so noise is created when air we breathe passes in and out.

There are a variety of reasons why this might happen, which means there’s a variety of potential solutions. (Note that some of these categories overlap — there may be multiple factors contributing to your snoring.) It is important to be assessed by a suitable health practitioner so the cause of the snoring can be determined in order for it to be treated correctly.

Lifestyle factors are a common causes in most types of snoring so often the first treatment will involve cessation or reducing the intake of alcohol, sleeping tablets and smoking as well as weight loss.

Nasal blockage

Congestion, sinus infections, alcohol consumption and other factors can cause obstruction in your nasal passages. Sometimes this might happen because of the structure of your nose or throat. 

Possible solutions

  • Nasal strips that hold your nostrils open
  • Nasal dilators that reduce collapsing in the nasal cavity
  • Nasal sprays that help treat symptoms of issues like sinus infections or hay fever (a spray may not be appropriate if structural problems or other, more permanent issues are causing your blockage)

Tongue-based snoring

If your tongue muscles relax and fall into the back of your throat, they can block your airways and create a throaty-sounding snore. There are a few ways a medical or dental professional may be able to help stop your tongue from resting in the base of your mouth and causing your snoring.

Possible solutions

  • A mandibular advancement splint (MAS) is a device that moves your jaw forward and creates tension in certain areas of your throat, stopping your tongue muscles from falling back toward your throat. A dentist or dental specialist may be able to offer this treatment.
  • Changes to your sleeping position may help reduce tongue-based snoring. Your tongue muscles are more likely to relax into your throat while lying on your back, so changing positions can help in some cases. Medical professionals may be able to offer techniques or wearable devices that condition you to sleep in a different position. 

Mouth breathing

Sleeping with your mouth open might make you more likely to snore or choke, along with heightening your risk of problems like dry mouth or infections. Your nostrils are usually pretty effective air filters, helping to reduce the allergens or dust that enter your lungs when you breathe. If you’re breathing through your mouth, your body might choke or cough as you sleep in order to expel particles that your nostrils would normally filter.

This type of breathing might be a side effect of nasal blockage (but not always).

Possible solutions

  • Special chin straps or oral appliances might stop your jaw from falling open and promote breathing through your nose. There are lots of variations of this solution, a dentist can help with some of these products (in fact, some are over-the-counter), but they may not be appropriate if your snoring is the result of nasal blockage or another problem. Speaking with a healthcare professional is usually the best way to confirm whether a device is appropriate for you.
  • Orthodontic treatment. Mouth breathing is sometimes a result of or can contribute to underlying skeletal problems which orthodontic treatment can correct.
  • Surgical treatment. If the mouth breathing is due to an underlying problem e.g. enlarged adenoids/ tonsils you may need to see an ENT surgeon. This is common in children.

Palatal flutter

This type of snoring happens because your soft palate (basically, the roof of your mouth) and your uvula vibrate or “flutter.” Palatal flutter is common with other types of snoring, but it can also happen by itself.

Possible solutions

  • Certain nose or mouth sprays and injections might tighten the tissues of your soft palate.
  • Some adhesive strips can help limit the amount of vibration in your soft palate, similar to strips used to correct mouth breathing.
  • Surgical procedures.

Most of these treatment options have potential side effects. It is very important that any treatment is undertaken with the advice and supervision of a suitable health care professional.

Can a dentist help with snoring?

Maybe! It depends on the type of snoring you experience and recommendations you’ve received from your doctor.

If a dentist or dental specialist is qualified to treat snoring, they might recommend options like night splints that either help you breathe through your nose or reposition your jaw or soft palate to stop your airway from narrowing.

In some cases, a dentist might only be able to help you treat symptoms and may need to refer you to a doctor or sleep specialist to treat the underlying problem.

But what’s the best solution for snoring? 

While there are a few over-the-counter devices and products you can try, you should consider speaking with a healthcare professional to understand the type and severity of your snoring. If you’re snoring or think you might be snoring, tell a doctor or dentist during a check-up.

Another reason to speak with a healthcare professional is that you might be experiencing an issue that’s more serious than just snoring — sleep apnoea can cause serious health risks if left untreated, and you’ll usually need a diagnosis from a qualified medical professional.

Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a condition where your upper airway becomes fully or partially blocked while you sleep. This blockage can cause you to stop breathing for a while, often about 10-60 seconds, which can then result in you choking, snorting or gasping for air. This might rouse you from your sleep, but you may not even notice or remember it at all.

This process can repeat itself many times throughout your sleep, which tends to result in a fragmented sleep cycle that doesn’t give you the full rest your body needs. It might leave you feeling exhausted or unrested no matter how much sleep you think you’re getting.

But the problems can be more serious than just the day-to-day annoyance of feeling sleepy or exhausted (although that’s serious enough, if you ask us). If you experience untreated sleep apnoea, you may be at a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke or car accidents.

Symptoms of sleep apnoea

Many symptoms are similar to snoring symptoms (in fact, snoring itself can be one symptom of sleep apnoea).

Night-time symptoms

  • Snoring, choking or gasping for air, often following pauses in breathing
  • Waking up to urinate frequently

Daytime symptoms 

  • Feeling excessively sleepy or exhausted
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon waking
  • Headaches, especially in the morning
  • Irritation or mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory loss
  • Bed-wetting (mostly in children)

Sleep apnoea risk factors

You may be at a higher risk of sleep apnoea based on your age, lifestyle and other factors. Those include:

  • weight
  • alcohol consumption
  • smoking
  • age
  • family history of sleep apnoea
  • allergies or medical conditions, especially those that contribute to nasal blockage.

Sleep apnoea treatments

While a dentist is an important part of the team that will diagnose and treat sleep apnoea you will also need to see a qualified medical professional. Your dentist can arrange a referral and work with the doctor to help you manage this condition.

The recommended treatment will depend on your circumstances, but healthcare professionals have a few different ways of addressing sleep apnoea:

  • A CPAP (“continuous positive airway pressure”) machine and mask. These machines may help you breathe better at night by increasing the air pressure in your throat and preventing your airway from collapsing.
  • Lifestyle changes. If a doctor or specialist thinks lifestyle factors are contributing to your sleep apnoea, they might recommend losing weight, avoiding alcohol or quitting smoking.
  • Mouthguards and splints. These are often the same as or similar to the oral appliances a dentist might offer for snoring. Many of them are designed to hold your jaw forward to help you breathe easier.
  • Surgery.* In some cases, especially those where other methods haven’t been successful, a doctor might recommend surgery to correct issues with your soft palate or tongue.

Questions?

If you have questions about snoring or sleep apnoea, consider speaking with a doctor or dentist.

Search for dental clinics near you. If a clinic offers snoring and sleep solutions, their Dental Care Network listing will list these as services.

 

*Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. Before proceeding, you should seek a second opinion from an appropriately qualified health practitioner.

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The purpose of this article is to promote better understanding of dental health topics. It’s not meant to replace professional advice or diagnosis. Always talk to a dentist, doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you have a question about dental or medical conditions.

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