Is it Snoring or Sleep Apnea?

Snoring is common, affecting around 44% of men and 28% of women aged 30 to 60. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Snoring occurs when the flow of air is partially blocked during sleep, usually harmless.

Sleep apnea, on the other hand, involves loud and frequent snoring, along with gasping, choking, or brief pauses in breathing. These interruptions indicate a disrupted breathing pattern, potentially causing frequent awakenings. It’s crucial to recognize signs of sleep apnea and discuss them with a doctor or nurse.

This article will help you distinguish between snoring and sleep apnea, enabling you to identify possible symptoms of sleep apnea and know when to seek medical advice.

What Causes Snoring?

Snoring is that rumbling or buzzing sound we sometimes make while sleeping, and it happens because of loose tissues in our mouth, nose, and throat vibrating.

When we sleep, these tissues tend to relax, making them more prone to vibrating when air passes over them. If the airway becomes narrow, the speed of airflow increases, leading to more vibrations and snoring. 

Now, let’s take a look at some factors that can contribute to snoring:

  1. Obesity: Carrying extra weight, especially around the neck area, can narrow the airway.
  2. Use of alcohol or sedative drugs: These substances can relax the muscles in your throat, causing them to collapse and obstruct the airflow.
  3. Smoking cigarettes: Smoking irritates and inflames the tissues in your throat and nose, making them more likely to vibrate and cause snoring. Learn more about how smoking can worsen your snoring problems.
  4. Sleeping on your back: When you sleep on your back, gravity can push the relaxed tissues in your throat and tongue backward, obstructing the airway and causing snoring.
  5. Nasal congestion: If your nose is stuffy due to allergies, a cold, or other nasal conditions, the airflow can be limited.
  6. Nasal polyps: These small growths in the nose can block the nasal passages and disrupt the smooth airflow.
  7. Deviated septum: When the wall between the nostrils is bent or crooked, it can obstruct the airflow and lead to snoring.
  8. Underactive thyroid: An underactive thyroid gland can cause weight gain and fluid retention, which may contribute to snoring.
  9. Swelling of the tonsils or other tissues near the throat: Inflammation or enlargement of the tonsils or surrounding tissues can obstruct the airway.

Remember, these factors don’t guarantee that you will snore, but they increase the likelihood. 

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that occurs when your breathing is interrupted while you’re asleep, causing potential issues because proper breathing is crucial for our bodies to function well.

There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). OSA is more common than CSA.

In OSA, the problem arises when the tissue around the upper airway (similar to a tube that facilitates air movement in and out of your lungs) becomes narrow. This narrowing makes it challenging for air to flow smoothly, leading to difficulties or brief pauses in breathing during sleep.

Even if you don’t fully wake up, your body may partially awaken due to these interruptions. These disruptions in breathing and partial awakenings can negatively impact the quality of your sleep, leaving you feeling fatigued and unrested during the day.

One common symptom of OSA is snoring. Snoring happens when the air doesn’t flow smoothly through the narrowed airway, causing vibrations that create the snoring sound.

However, it’s important to note that snoring can also occur in people with CSA, although it’s more commonly associated with OSA.

Snoring vs. Sleep Apnea

Snoring and sleep apnea may seem similar, but there are crucial distinctions between the two.


Snoring is a common occurrence caused by the vibration of throat tissues due to the flow of air through the upper airway. Many people who snore do not have sleep apnea. In most cases, snoring is not a cause for concern unless it is associated with sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea (Obstructive Sleep Apnea – OSA)

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder characterized by periods of reduced or paused breathing during sleep. These pauses, lasting several seconds, can happen multiple times throughout the night. This interruption in breathing leads to brief awakenings, fragmented sleep, and often results in excessive daytime sleepiness.

The Signs You Might Have Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that can have significant health consequences if not addressed. While a self-diagnosis based on symptoms alone is not possible, recognizing potential signs can guide you in deciding when to consult a doctor.

Here are some signs that your snoring might be associated with sleep apnea:

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

In addition to these symptoms occurring during sleep, there are several daytime signs of sleep apnea that are important to be aware of:

  • Excessive sleepiness: If you frequently feel excessively sleepy during the day, especially during times when you would typically expect to be alert, it could be a result of interrupted sleep caused by sleep apnea. Falling asleep while engaged in activities such as reading, driving, or watching television may also indicate a need for further evaluation.
  • Morning headaches: Waking up with a squeezing headache on most mornings is a potential indicator of sleep apnea. These headaches typically occur on both sides of the front of your head and may persist for several hours.
  • Lack of refreshing sleep: Despite getting what appears to be sufficient sleep, if you consistently wake up feeling tired and not refreshed, it could be a consequence of interrupted sleep associated with sleep apnea.
  • Impaired attention and focus: Sleep apnea can impact the quality of your sleep, leading to difficulties with concentration, attention, and focus during daily tasks. This may affect your performance at work, school, or other activities that require mental alertness.
  • High blood pressure: While elevated blood pressure can be caused by various factors, it is important to consider sleep apnea as a possible contributor if you have other symptoms alongside hypertension. Many people with sleep apnea have elevated blood pressure, so it’s important to monitor and discuss this with your doctor.

For children with sleep apnea, the daytime symptoms may differ slightly. Instead of feeling tired, they are more likely to display signs of aggression, restlessness, or hyperactivity.

How to Treat Chronic Snoring

Dealing with chronic snoring can improve your sleep and your partner’s. Try these simple solutions, from lifestyle changes to medical options, to reduce and treat chronic snoring.

1. Lifestyle Tweaks

  • Maintain a Healthy Weight: Shedding excess pounds can make a big difference. Extra weight, especially around the neck, can contribute to airway blockage and snoring.
  • Cut Down on Alcohol: Alcohol relaxes muscles, including those in the throat. Reducing alcohol intake, especially before bedtime, can help minimize snoring.
  • Quit Smoking: Smoking irritates the throat and can lead to increased snoring. Quitting smoking not only benefits your overall health but can also reduce snoring.

2. Sleep Position

Believe it or not, the way you sleep matters. Sleeping on your back can increase the likelihood of snoring as it allows throat muscles to relax and obstruct airflow. Switching to sleeping on your side can keep the airway open and reduce snoring.

3. Exercises for the Mouth and Throat

Strengthening the muscles in your mouth and throat can be achieved through simple exercises. Pronouncing certain vowel sounds and doing tongue exercises, guided by a doctor or speech therapist, may help reduce snoring.

4. Nasal Sprays and Devices

If congestion is contributing to your snoring, nasal sprays can help reduce stuffiness and improve airflow. Devices like nasal strips or dilators can also keep nasal passages open during sleep. 

5. Anti-Snoring Mouthpieces

Dentist-prescribed anti-snoring mouthpieces are designed to keep your airway open while you sleep. These personalized devices reposition the jaw and tongue, preventing them from blocking airflow and reducing snoring.

6. Surgical Options (for severe cases)

In cases where other treatments fall short, surgery might be considered. Procedures involve removing excess tissue in the mouth or throat or using implants to stabilize tissues and reduce vibrations. Surgical interventions are typically reserved for severe cases or when snoring is linked to underlying health issues.

Read more: Best Remedies to Treat Snoring

When to Discuss Your Snoring with Your Doctor

Snoring is a common annoyance, usually not a big health worry. However, certain signs linked to snoring could point to a more serious issue called sleep apnea. If you notice any of the following signs, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor:

  • Loud Snoring Regularly: If your snoring is consistently loud and disrupts your sleep or your partner’s, it might be worth discussing with your doctor.
  • Breathing Issues While Asleep: Experiencing difficulties like gasping or choking while you sleep could be a warning sign of sleep apnea.
  • Feeling Unrefreshed After Sleep: Despite getting a solid seven hours, waking up tired, groggy, or unfreshed could signal an underlying sleep disorder like sleep apnea.
  • Morning Headaches: Regularly waking up with headaches, especially in the morning, might indicate disrupted sleep patterns and should be addressed.
  • Concentration or Memory Problems: Frequent struggles with concentration, memory lapses, or staying focused could be associated with sleep apnea.
  • Daytime Sleepiness or Fatigue: Experiencing excessive sleepiness or struggling to stay awake during the day, especially during important tasks, can be a sign of poor sleep quality due to sleep apnea.

To figure out if your snoring is linked to sleep apnea or other sleep disorders, diagnostic testing is necessary.

Your doctor might suggest a sleep study at a clinic or, in some cases, a home sleep apnea test. These tests involve various devices monitoring your breathing patterns, oxygen levels, heart rhythms, and other bodily systems while you sleep. The collected data helps your doctor evaluate whether you have sleep apnea or another sleep disorder.

Need professional help to diagnose and address your sleep problems? Schedule an online consultation with sleep specialist Dr. John Williams.

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