Is it Snoring or Sleep Apnea?

Although snoring is common in people who have sleep apnea, you can definitely snore and not have sleep apnea.

Almost everyone snores once in a while, and as many as 44% of people snore on a regular basis. But snoring that is loud, frequent, and accompanied by gasping, choking, or pauses in breathing may be a sign of sleep apnea.

With typical snoring, breathing continues uninterrupted. With sleep apnea, though, breathing is repeatedly disrupted, causing multiple partial awakenings.

While most snoring is normal and harmless, it is important to be aware of any signs of obstructive sleep apnea and talk about them with your doctor. 

What Causes Snoring?

Snoring is a sound caused by the vibration of loose tissues in your mouth, nose, and throat. These tissues become relaxed as you sleep, so they are prone to vibrating when air passes over them.

If your airway becomes narrowed, then the speed of airflow over these tissues increases, which can cause more vibration and snoring. As a result, snoring is more likely if airflow through your nose or throat becomes partially blocked during sleep.

Certain factors are known to be cause snoring, including:

  • Obesity
  • Use of alcohol or sedative drugs
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Sleeping on your back
  • Nasal congestion 
  • Nasal polyps, which are small growths in the nose 
  • A bend in the wall between the nostrils
  • An underactive thyroid
  • Swelling of the tonsils or other tissues near the throat

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea refers to certain sleep disorders that involve interruptions in breathing. There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA).

OSA is much more common than CSA. OSA occurs when the tissue around the upper airway narrows, causing a reduction or stoppage in breathing. Disrupted breathing triggers partial awakenings that interfere with quality sleep.

As a symptom, snoring is primarily associated with OSA, but it may also occur in people with CSA.

Snoring vs. Sleep Apnea

Both snoring and obstructive sleep apnea involve changes to how air passes through the upper airway. It is common for people with OSA to snore. However, the majority of people who snore do not have OSA, and not everyone with OSA snores.

In OSA, breathing stops or slows for seconds at a time at various points during sleep. This causes brief and partial awakenings, fragmented sleep, and daytime sleepiness, making OSA a serious sleep disorder.

In contrast, normal snoring does not involve reductions or pauses in breathing. Snoring regularly usually isn’t a problem if it is not related to sleep apnea. 

It is natural to want to tell the difference between harmless snoring and sleep apnea. Although only medical testing can definitively tell them apart, it is still helpful to know the potential signs that snoring could be linked to OSA. 

Indications That Snoring Might Be Sleep Apnea

You can’t tell by symptoms alone whether you have sleep apnea. But recognizing potential signs of sleep apnea can help you know when to talk to your doctor.

Some of the most common OSA symptoms happen during sleep, so you may only be aware of them if a bed partner or roommate notices and tells you about them. These symptoms include:

  • Very loud snoring
  • Pauses in breathing
  • Choking or gasping for air

Other symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea can affect you when you’re awake. It’s important to be aware of these daytime signs of OSA since you are more likely to be conscious of them.

  • Excessive sleepiness during the day: You may feel very sleepy during times when you expect to feel alert and may even fall asleep while doing activities like reading, driving, or watching television.
  • Morning headaches: On most mornings, you may wake up with a squeezing headache. The pain is usually felt on both sides of the front of your head and may last for several hours.
  • Not feeling well-rested after a full night’s sleep: If you often don’t feel refreshed even after sleeping for at least seven hours, it could be tied to interrupted sleep related to OSA.
  • Poor concentration: You may struggle with attention or focus at work or school or when doing other daily tasks if OSA is reducing the quality of your sleep. 
  • High blood pressure: Many people with OSA have elevated blood pressure. While high blood pressure can be caused by many other conditions, it may be a sign of OSA if it occurs alongside other symptoms.

For children with sleep apnea, the daytime symptoms may be different. Instead of feeling tired, many children with OSA are more likely to show signs of aggression, restlessness, or hyperactivity. 

Long-Lasting Effects of Snoring and Sleep Apnea

Occasional snoring usually has no long-lasting effects. If snoring is not linked to sleep apnea, then it doesn’t interfere with your sleep or cause daytime symptoms. If you snore habitually, it may be bothersome for anyone who shares a bed or room with you.

In contrast, untreated OSA can cause long-term sleeping problems that can affect concentration, memory, and decision-making. Daytime sleepiness can raise the risk of accidents. OSA also reduces the body’s oxygen levels during sleep, which over time may lead to serious health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

In children, untreated OSA can contribute to learning and developmental difficulties. Children affected by severe OSA may have impaired growth in height and weight. 

Treating Chronic Snoring

Unless it is linked to sleep apnea, snoring itself is not usually a cause for concern. However, because it can be disruptive for a bed partner, you may be looking for ways to try to stop snoring.

It is best to check with a doctor about what might work best for you, but some changes to habits and lifestyle may reduce snoring, such as:

If snoring is being caused by a stuffy nose, then using a nasal spray or a device to help widen the nasal passages may be helpful.

Anti-snoring mouthpieces that are custom-fitted by a dentist are designed to help keep the airway open during sleep.

Lastly, if other treatments are unsuccessful, surgery for snoring may be considered. Surgical options can include removing loose tissue in the mouth or throat or inserting an implant into part of the mouth to stabilize the tissues so that they are less likely to vibrate.

Your doctor or a sleep specialist can provide more information on these treatment options and their benefits and drawbacks in your situation. 

CPAP Therapy for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy can effectively treat both snoring and sleep apnea if it is used every night.

In CPAP therapy, filtered and pressurized air is pumped from a machine, through a mask, and into your airway while you sleep. The air pressure helps your airway stay open. Treatment with CPAP is often the initial treatment for people with OSA.

A CPAP device is only available with a prescription. While most insurance policies cover at least some of the cost of CPAP therapy if it is used to treat sleep apnea, they typically do not provide coverage if CPAP is used to treat snoring alone.

When to Talk to Your Doctor About Snoring

Talk with your doctor if you experience any of the following potential warning signs of sleep apnea:

  • Loud snoring on a regular basis
  • Breathing difficulties when you sleep
  • Waking up unrefreshed even after sleeping at least seven hours
  • Regular morning headaches
  • Problems with concentration or memory
  • Difficulty staying awake at work or school or during other times during the day

The only definite way to tell the difference between regular snoring and snoring caused by sleep apnea is to have diagnostic testing. This can involve going to a clinic for a sleep study or, in some cases, taking a home sleep apnea test.

During a sleep study and a home sleep apnea test, devices monitor your breathing patterns, oxygen levels, heart rhythms, and other bodily systems while you sleep. This data can be used to determine whether you have sleep apnea.

If your doctor thinks testing is necessary, they can recommend the best type of testing for you. When results are available, the doctor can tell you whether your snoring is linked to OSA. If you do have OSA, they can review your options for OSA treatment. If you don’t have OSA they may still discuss steps you can take to reduce snoring. 

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