Research Finds That Even Quiet, Mild Snoring Could Be a Sign of a Significant Health Issue

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Couple Sleeping Unhappy

Loud snoring is annoying. However, a new study conducted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), found that loud snoring may be a sign that someone is struggling to breathe and may need treatment to prevent serious medical complications, including death. (1) But the most interesting part of the study indicated that even the slightest amount of snoring could signify the same complications.

What Causes Snoring?

Snoring occurs when the flow of air through the mouth and nose is physically obstructed, explains Dr. Wilburn Eddy Furniss, III, a family medicine doctor at Nacogdoches Health Partners in Nacogdoches, TX. Air flow can be obstructed for a variety of reasons, including anatomical abnormalities, muscle tone of the throat and tongue, bulky throat tissue, and obstructive sleep apnea, Furniss says. Lifestyle factors such as obesity, alcohol consumption, and smoking can also contribute to snoring, he adds. 

Why Does Snoring Need to be Treated? 

Although soring is annoying, it isn’t always cause for alarm. Dr. Furniss recommends that those who snore seek medical attention if they wake up with a headache, are tired during the day, have recently gained weight, or notice changes in their mood. Medical attention may also be warranted if snoring is loud enough to disturb the sleep of the person who is snoring or disturb the sleep of others, he says. 

This type of snoring needs to be evaluated by a doctor because it may indicate that someone has obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), Furniss cautions. Those who suffer from OSA have airways that are partially or completely blocked during sleep, he explains. This is dangerous because it “can lead to fragmented sleep and lower oxygen levels in the blood, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and stroke,” he says. In some cases, untreated OSA can be fatal

The Study

Because snoring has so many causes, it’s not always clear when snoring requires treatment. Researchers from the NHLBI set out to gather more information about whether loud snoring indicates a serious health problem or is annoying but harmless.  

The researchers were not surprised to find that those with more significant airway obstructions snored more loudly than those with mild obstructions. 

However, the researchers also found that when someone has any type of airway obstruction, louder snoring indicated that the person was making a greater effort to breathe. Snoring was at its loudest when a person had a larger airway obstruction combined with making a greater effort to breathe.  

Even when a person’s level of airway obstruction remained about the same, their snoring became louder when it took more of an effort to breathe. This finding means that loud snoring is caused at least as much by how much someone is struggling to breathe to breathe, if not more, than how significantly their airway is obstructed. 

Notably, the study also found that snoring becomes quieter when someone has an extreme obstruction, such as when they stop breathing during an episode of sleep apnea. That’s an important finding because it indicates that even snoring quietly may indicate a serious medical condition.  

Another important finding is that even when all other factors are equal, some people simply snore more loudly than others. In some cases, those with similar levels of airway obstruction and making a similar effort to breathe snored twice as loudly as others. It’s not clear why this happens, but it means that how loud someone snores isn’t a definitive indicator of how much someone is struggling to breathe. It also means that there is no baseline against which snoring sounds can be evaluated. The researchers indicated that finding out why some people snore more loudly than others with similar medical conditions could be an area for further study. 

The Bottom Line

Loud snoring may indicate that someone is struggling to breathe at night and indicates a need for medical evaluation. However, quiet snoring may also indicate a serious medical issue as well, due to natural variations in snoring levels and how different underlying causes impact snoring sound levels. 

“This study highlights the importance of not dismissing snoring as merely a nuisance but recognizing it as a potential indicator of underlying health issues,” Furniss says. He emphasizes that “individuals who snore loudly should undergo evaluation for sleep apnea and other conditions.” Furniss says that studies such as this one may help personalize snoring treatments in the future.  

Getting evaluated early can lead to better health outcomes. “Early detection and treatment can significantly improve the quality of life and reduce the risk of long-term health complications,” Furniss says. “It’s crucial for people to understand that while snoring can be common, it’s not always harmless,” he cautions.

  • 1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; “Does how loud you snore matter to your health?”;;; March 13, 2024.

  • Furniss III, Wilburn Eddy. Author interview. March 2024.

Jamie Smith

Jamie Smith

Jamie Davis Smith is an attorney, writer, and mother of four who values a good night's sleep. She loves exploring her hometown of Washington, DC, and beyond.

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