Sinusitis and sleep: The connection between sinusitis, snoring, and loss of sleep

Many sinusitis sufferers go through their waking life struggling to breathe through their noses. The congestion and swelling in the nasal passages and paranasal sinuses[1] make it difficult for air to pass through, which can be uncomfortable. It can also force them to breathe through the mouth in order to get enough air.

But sinusitis doesn’t just affect people during the day. At nighttime too, sinusitis can cause sufferers—and their partners—to lose sleep.

According to the American Rhinologic Society (ARS),[2] while you’re asleep, your reflex is to breathe through your nose. But just like during the day, the sinus inflammation and swelling caused by sinusitis can force you to breathe through your mouth instead.

When you’re asleep, soft tissue in the back of your throat—the uvula (the tissue that hangs down when you “open wide”) and the soft palate—relaxes compared to when you’re awake.

If this tissue is blocking the way while you are sleeping, negative pressure can be created behind the soft palate. This causes the soft tissue to vibrate more and create sound, which is snoring. As sinus swelling can force mouth-breathing, it can make snoring more likely.

Snoring by itself isn’t considered serious, the ARS reports, even though it is a nuisance (particularly to partners in the same room). It can, however, indicate something more serious: obstructive sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea: When snoring becomes serious

Sleep apnea is a condition where you temporarily, repeatedly stop breathing while asleep.[3] Very loud snoring, particularly when it’s coupled with intermittent silences and then gasps for air, is a sign that you may have sleep apnea. People with sleep apnea are often tired after a full night’s sleep, have headaches upon waking, and experience excessive daytime fatigue. Sleep apnea can have longer-term consequences, as well, including:

  • higher risk of heart and blood vessel disease
  • higher blood pressure
  • higher risk of stroke, diabetes, and depression
  • weight gain and obesity
  • higher risk of congestive heart failure[3]

If you suspect that you may have sleep apnea, consult with your physician for possible referral to a sleep specialist for full evaluation.

How to treat sinusitis-related snoring

If snoring is caused by sinusitis, then treating the underlying condition may reduce snoring symptoms. Chronic sinusitis is usually treated by an ENT (ear, nose, throat) physician and some ENTs even specialize in treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.

The American Rhinologic Society advocates a better-safe-than-sorry approach, along with tracking symptoms:

If you suffer from nasal congestion, snoring, or suspect sleep apnea, contact your local Otolaryngology specialist. Considering the complexity of the upper airway, it is important to keep track of your symptoms and to write down what makes your symptoms better or worse. This may help your physician in choosing the right treatment for you.[2]

When it turns out that a patient does have sleep apnea, if the condition is mild, lifestyle changes (losing weight, sleeping on the side rather than the back) are the first thing doctors usually recommend.[3] Other medical interventions are then considered if the condition continues.[2]

To recap: sinusitis leads to swelling in the nose, which can force you to breathe through your mouth. Mouth-breathing during sleep can cause snoring, which may also indicate more serious problems if it’s severe enough. The consequences are potentially serious and ENT physicians are available to assist those who are concerned about their symptoms.