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Snoring vs. Sleep Apnea: What's the Difference?

By John McGuire
Snoring is one of the most common signs of sleep apnea. But does snoring always mean that you have sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea, a condition in which you intermittently stop breathing at night, can have serious health consequences. Snoring, on the other hand, can be relatively harmless—except, of course, to those around you trying to sleep. While snoring and sleep apnea are frequently associated, special testing is often needed to determine whether a snorer has sleep apnea or not. And because the health consequences of sleep apnea are so grave, it’s worth getting a clear-cut answer. Here’s what you need to know about the difference between sleep apnea and snoring.

The Difference Between Snoring and Sleep Apnea

We all know what snoring sounds like, but what causes it? Snoring is caused by the flapping and vibrating of the relaxed tissues of your mouth and throat as you inspire air, according to Mayo Clinic. It can be amplified by any number of factors, including:

  • Airway anatomy
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Allergies or chronic nasal congestion
  • A deviated septum
  • Sleep position, especially sleeping on your back

What about sleep apnea? First, there are two types of sleep apnea. The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is caused by airway obstruction. OSA is the type that is more commonly associated with snoring. A rarer type is central sleep apnea (CSA), which is caused by impaired signals from the brain to the muscles involved in breathing.  

The big difference between OSA and snoring is that with OSA, the airway becomes blocked to such a degree that oxygen levels in the body decline, causing an arousal or awakening from sleep. Stanford Health Care notes that these awakenings often last only a few seconds and the sleeper can be unaware that they are happening. However, these interruptions disrupt a healthy sleep cycle nonetheless and can cause significant fatigue. 

Here are some indications that your snoring might be a symptom of sleep apnea, according to Mayo Clinic:

  • Someone notices pauses in your breathing at night
  • Daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • Morning headaches
  • Problems with concentration
  • Waking up gasping or choking

To get a formal diagnosis of sleep apnea, you will need to get a sleep test (called a “polysomnogram”). This test will monitor blood oxygen levels, heart rate, and other parameters, according to Mayo Clinic. Sometimes you can do a sleep test at home, but in other cases, going to a sleep lab is required.

Aside from decreasing your quality of life because of fatigue and low energy, sleep apnea increases your risk of developing serious health conditions, according to Cleveland Clinic. These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Enlargement of the heart
  • Heart failure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Heart attacks

With this much on the line, it’s clear that diagnosing sleep apnea is an important health priority.

Think you may have sleep apnea? Start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.