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Dear Science: How do I stop snoring?

(Rachel Orr/Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Dear Science, 

According to my partner, I snore. A lot. I've never been made aware of this before. Is it possible that I've suddenly started snoring, or just never noticed? How can I make it stop? And why doesn't my own snoring wake me up when the slightest noise from outside has me bolting awake? 

Here's what science has to say:

Bad news, compadre. It's totally possible that you've gone your entire life snoring without realizing it — or that it's a habit you've just recently picked up. Some 90 million American adults snore, and it's a problem that's known to get worse with age. While just 30 percent of adults over the age of 30 produce these noises in their sleep, the prevalence jumps to 40 percent of adults just a decade older. If you still can't believe it, try using a snore tracking app to record some evidence. The results may shock you — Rachel was recently appalled to find that, for around five minutes every night, she sounds like she's choking on an angry bear.

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If you've confirmed — by way of a companion's complaint or your own sleuthing — that you have a snoring problem, your first step should be to visit a doctor. Don't fret, snoring is usually harmless: It's just caused by the vibration of the soft tissues in your upper airway. When you sleep, all of your muscles relax, and the upper airway is no exception. If these relaxed tissues fall too close together, creating a tight passage for air as you breathe through the night, the high-frequency vibrations that result can produce some pretty gnarly night music.

But while plenty of snoring is harmless, it can sometimes be related to sleep apnea, a condition where the airway is so obstructed that breathing actually stops during the night. If you're snoring, you need to confirm that you aren't actually experiencing sleep apnea.

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In the meantime — or once you've been to the doctor and back — there are definitely things you can do to ease your partner's pain. You can look to some of the factors that worsen snoring as ways to help mitigate it.

"Sleeping on your back is a big thing to try to avoid," Daniel Barone, a sleep expert at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, told The Washington Post. In fact, most doctors in Barone's line of work recommend that folks sleep in the fetal position."When you’re on your back, gravity is kind of forcing those soft tissues toward the back of the throat," he said. So try to curl onto your side with your hips and knees flexed. If your body simply refuses to stay in that position once you drift off, you can try attaching something bulky — like a tennis ball — to the back of your sleep shirt to deter you.

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There are also daytime lifestyle changes that can help you snore less. Obesity can make your snoring worse, simply because you have more mass on the neck pressing down on your airway, so losing weight can help a lot. Since alcohol relaxes muscles, it obviously can make a snoring problem worse — so consider abstaining if you don't want to annoy your bunkmate. Smoking can also make snoring worse, because it irritates the soft tissues and makes them inflamed and therefore enlarged. Chronic congestion or sinus inflammation can cause tight airways too, so addressing any ongoing nose and throat problems with a doctor can help.

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When we asked Barone why the ones doing the snoring are so rarely bothered by the noise, he admitted it was a great question, and even took a moment to look for any studies on the subject. As it turns out, no one has examined that particular aspect of snoring.

"No one really knows for sure, as far as I know," he said. But he has a guess: It probably has to do with the kinds of things our brains learn to filter out.

It's true that the human brain is quite good at filtering out background information, things we see or hear all the time and don't need to pay attention to. You might get so used to an annoying hum coming from your computer that you don't hear it until it suddenly stops. The familiarity of certain smells — including your own farts — renders them benign to your olfactory system, lest your brain be overwhelmed by constant, stinky sensory input.

"Snoring can in fact wake someone up, especially if we're talking about sleep apnea," Barone said. You might not even realize, once you jolt awake, that it was a particularly loud snore from your own schnozz that interrupted your slumber. "But the kind of continuous, loud snoring that interrupts a bed partner might be something your body can adapt to," he added. "Your brain knows it's not a threat."

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Not a threat to your life, maybe, but possibly a threat to your marriage. So how can you make the snoring stop, if lifestyle tweaks haven't done the job? That doctor you went to (because you're smart and look after your health, right?) will probably have some recommendations. Barone usually starts with something cheap and easy: Those adhesive nasal strips you can buy at the drugstore. They're not the sexiest nightwear, but they work for most people (Rachel, for one, no longer sounds like a banshee with a bad cold). They work by forcing your nostrils open slightly wider than normal, promoting a breezy airflow that keeps vibrations to a minimum. Nasal dilators — little cone-shaped widgets that slip into your nostrils and force them open — do the same job.

But if nasal congestion isn't a major contributor to your snoring, you may need to address the position of your tongue and soft tissues using more sinister looking appliances. You'll definitely want a doctor's advice for these, as their medical expertise can help you avoid wasting money on something ill-suited to the cause of your snoring.

If all else fails, you can turn to surgery: Doctors can remove excess soft tissues to decrease the vibrations in your airway. It's not exactly fun, but it's safe.

"A lot of these soft tissues are really vestigial," Barone said. "They aren't really necessary for you to function."

But no one will blame you if going under the knife seems like an extreme solution to your beloved's interrupted slumber. If the snoring simply won't abate, it might be time to gift your bedmate some quality earplugs.

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