They snooze, you lose: Secondhand snoring effects test health, relationships

Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo Illustration
Carol Dobbins’ husband snores so loudly that she uses two fans to drown out the noise and also uses special earplugs.

Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo Illustration Carol Dobbins’ husband snores so loudly that she uses two fans to drown out the noise and also uses special earplugs.


Carol Dobbins uses special earplugs to drown out her husband's snores at night.

Culprits behind snoring

Common causes of snoring, courtesy of

Although it may be upsetting to think that there could be problems at the root of you or your bed buddy's snoring, it's important to get to the bottom of it. When you do, you'll protect your health, and the intimacy of your relationship.

Age. As you reach middle age and beyond, your throat becomes narrower, and the muscle tone in your throat decreases.

The way you're built. Men have narrower air passages than women and are more likely to snore. A narrow throat, a cleft palate, enlarged adenoids, and other physical attributes (which contribute to snoring) can be hereditary.

Nasal and sinus problems. Blocked airways make inhalation difficult and create a vacuum in the throat, leading to snoring.

Being overweight or out of shape. Fatty tissue and poor muscle tone contribute to snoring.

Alcohol, smoking, and medications. Alcohol intake, smoking (or second-hand smoke), and certain medications, increase muscle relaxation leading to more snoring.

Sleep posture. Sleeping flat on your back causes the flesh of your throat to relax and block the airway.

Snoring and sleep apnea: Snoring could indicate sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening condition that requires medical attention. Sleep apnea is a breathing obstruction, causing the sleeper to awaken to begin breathing again. A person with sleep apnea wakes up many times a night to regain breathing, but usually doesn't remember it. Serious risks of sleep apnea include sleep deprivation, oxygen deprivation, and depression.


“You would not believe how loud John can snore,” Carol Dobbins, Lawrence, says about her husband of 35 years. “I always tell him it sounds like a stuck pig. Seriously.”

That’s an all-too familiar lament for scores of women (and some men) who have the bad fortune of sleeping (or, more accurately, not sleeping) next to a snorer.

“Not that I don’t love him,” Dobbins continues, “but sometimes it is so loud, it’s stressful. I hear it starting, and I prepare for the worst. Then, if I nudge him, he moves and gets irritated sometimes, and begins again.”

So-called secondhand snoring can take its toll.

A study conducted by the Mayo Clinic in 1999 found that bed partners of people who snore woke up, at least partially, 21 times an hour on average. That’s almost as often as snorers, who woke themselves up 27 times per hour.

In addition, spouses and partners of snorers suffer from excessive sleepiness and fatigue during the day, which can negatively affect performance at work and harmony at home.

Donna Cotton, lab administrator for Sleep Disorders Institute, 2331 Ala., sees it every day.

“I do a lot of marriage counseling here,” Cotton says. “Lots of time, it’s the spouse that calls me saying, ‘We’ve got to do something, it’s ruining our relationship.’”

Cotton says most of her patients are at their wits’ end when they walk through the institute’s doors.

“By the time they get to us, more than 50 percent or our patients are sleeping in a different room (than their partners). Maybe even 75 percent. They’ll sleep on a couch. They’ll sleep on the floor. They will sleep anywhere but with that patient.”

“There’s a guilt and a disassociation. They feel isolated. They become frustrated and angry over the fact that they can’t sleep and it’s not their sleep problem. Or, maybe they’ve slept, but they’ve slept tense.”

Cotton knows first-hand what she’s talking about. Her husband suffered from severe sleep apnea for years before finally agreeing to try a CPAP machine.

“I had ear plugs. We had white noise. I tried wrapping a pillow around my head. I thought about wrapping a pillow around his head,” she laughs.

“The first night on the CPAP machine, he slept quiet. I slept quiet. And for the first time in years, I woke up cuddled up against him in the night.”

According to researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, another ill effect of secondhand snoring is hearing loss. Their study in 2003 showed people who slept next to a snorer for 15-39 years experienced hearing damage in the one ear that was most exposed to the snoring.

Lawrence audiologist Gerald Whiteside, of Marston Hearing Center says other factors might be at play, like genetics.

“That sets up the predisposition for the receptor cells to be easily damaged or destroyed by a number of different factors,” he explains. “The most likely one is loss of blood cells to those receptors because of poor diet and exercise.

“As for exposure to noise, OSHA starts to get worried when our noise exposure is at the level of a vacuum cleaner for more than eight hours a day. I can’t imagine somebody snoring at that level for 8 hours, so I don’t believe that’s a cause of hearing loss.”

But, the Queen’s University study showed that a few thunderous snorers can reach levels from 90 to 120 decibels. That’s when ear protection is recommended.

“The foam ones are good,” Whiteside says. “They provide about as much attenuation, which is a quieting factor, as anything. And since they’re soft, they’re probably more flexible and easier to lay on than anything else.”

Swim plugs, used to prevent swimmers ear, are custom-molded and cover the conch, or the big bowl, of the ear. Because of the higher cost, Whiteside does not recommend them for nighttime use only.

“If you can spread their use around — to swimming and to other noisy environments — it makes them a more attractive alternative because they’re more comfortable, much more durable and won’t get lost as easily. But, for something you use occasionally, 80 bucks a pair is kind of pricey for that application.”

Carol Dobbins has found a semi-satisfactory solution to her second-hand snoring problem.

“I wear a set of earplugs and sometimes sleep with two fans plus a ceiling face to diffuse the sound,” she explains. “And when he travels, we both sleep like babies!”

Whiteside admits no solution is perfect.

“It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to find anything to completely cut out the snoring noise,” he says. “First of all, the masker would have to be louder, which kind of defeats the purpose. The plugs are OK, but you need to consider that you’re not going to hear alarms or smoke detectors or anything else.”

“That’s what couples need to work out,” he suggests. “Who needs to make the change? And what change can be made that’s the least invasive to the family?”


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