The difference between snoring and sleep apnea | 3 min read

Most of us snore from time to time, but if it happens frequently, it may affect the quality and quantity of our sleep, which can lead to fatigue and health problems.

What is snoring?

Snoring happens when air cannot move freely through your nose and throat during sleep. This makes the surrounding tissues vibrate, which produces the familiar snoring sound. 

Causes of snoring

  • Being overweight, especially if you have extra weight around your neck and throat.
  • Age. Once you reach middle age, your throat starts to narrow, and the muscle tone in your throat decreases.
  • Sinus and nasal problems such as swollen tonsils block airways, making inhalation difficult and creating a vacuum in the throat leading to snoring
  • Alcohol, smoking, and specific medication can increase muscle relaxation leading to snoring
  • Sleeping flat on your back causes the flesh of your throat to relax and your tongue to fall back and block the airway

Ways to stop snoring

  • Losing weight to reduce excess fatty tissue
  • Exercise to tone your entire body (including throat muscles)
  • Quit smoking
  • Keep nasal passages clear. Nasal washes or strips help you breathe easier while sleeping
  • Keep air moist while you sleep, as dry air may cause nasal irritation
  • Raising your head approximately 10 cm and sleeping on your side.

What is sleep apnea?

Snoring can be a symptom of sleep apnea, which can be a potentially life-threatening medical condition if left untreated. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is defined as the cessation of airflow during sleep, preventing air from entering the lungs due to an obstruction. These periods of ‘stopping breathing’ only become clinically significant if the cessation lasts for more than 10 seconds each time and occurs more than ten times every hour. OSA only happens during sleep, as it is a lack of muscle tone in your upper airway that causes the airway to collapse. 

As airflow stops during a sleep apnea episode, the oxygen level in your blood drops. Your brain responds by briefly disturbing your sleep enough to kick-start breathing – which often resumes with a gasp or a choking sound. If you have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), you probably will not remember these awakenings. Most of the time, you will stir just enough to tighten your throat muscles and open your windpipe. In central sleep apnea, you may be conscious of your awakenings.

Sufferers may experience some of the following:

  • Loud heavy snoring often interrupted by pauses and gasps
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Irritability and morning headaches
  • Forgetfulness, anxiety, or depression
  • Changes in mood or behaviour
  • Decreased sex drive

Sleep apnea causes and risk factors

  • Being overweight
  • Male
  • Related to someone who has sleep apnea
  • Over the age of 50
  • A smoker
  • Having high blood pressure
  • A thick neck
  • Blocked or narrowed airways
  • Allergies

Treating sleep apnea

In mild and moderate cases, weight loss and the use of dental devices (fitted by a professional dentist) can be all that is needed. Two standard oral devices are the mandibular repositioning device and the tongue retaining device. These devices open your airway by bringing your lower jaw or your tongue forward during sleep. A dental device or nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is usually prescribed in moderate and severe cases. CPAP is the standard treatment for OSA. When wearing a CPAP mask, the machine will blow air into your airways to keep them open throughout the night. 

Address other possible causes such as allergies, sinus problems, etc., and do throat strengthening exercises.


Harvard Health Publications

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