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

Sleep Apnea

How are snoring and sleep apnea different? Stellar Sleep walks you through everything you need to know about these common sleep issues.

Waking up in the middle of the night is a less-than-ideal experience — you’re often left confused and wondering what it was that woke you up in the first place.

If you’ve been hearing reports from your loved ones that you snore in your sleep, or if you’re waking up feeling like you haven’t gotten the restful sleep you need, it’s time to look into it. Snoring can be occasional or a sign of sleep apnea. 

Let’s dive into the difference between snoring and sleep apnea with Stellar Sleep, including when you should reach out for help.

What Is Snoring?

Snoring is a physical symptom and refers to the sound you make when air passes through the relaxed tissues in your throat, causing them to vibrate when breathing. Snoring doesn’t sound the same for everyone — it can be a rattle, a snort, a grumble, or anywhere in between.

It’s normal for many to be occasional snorers, usually in relation to the position you’re sleeping in, but it can also become a chronic problem. 

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea, on the other hand, does qualify as a sleep disorder. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious health condition, causing those affected to stop breathing for short periods. For some, these interruptions in breathing can last up to 10 seconds at a time and occur hundreds of times a night. 

The result of sleep apnea is a lack of oxygen to the brain and body, the primary reason for the complications that are associated with the disease. 

How Are Snoring and Sleep Apnea Different?

Although snoring and sleep apnea may sound similar, there are plenty of differences and ways to tell them apart. For one, snoring is not an illness or diagnosis on its own — it’s a symptom of another issue. 

Let’s look at the causes, symptoms, treatments, and potential long-term consequences of both.

What Causes Snoring and Sleep Apnea?

Snoring is caused by issues with the anatomy involved in breathing. Factors like mouth anatomy (the size and shape of your soft palate), weight, a deviated septum, and your sleep position can all increase the likelihood that you’ll experience snoring. 

Sleep apnea is slightly more complicated. There are two primary forms of sleep apnea — central sleep apnea (CSA) and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). 

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is caused by a miscommunication between the brain and the muscles that control breathing, making it a neurological disorder rather than a physical one. Experiencing a stroke, narcotic pain medication usage, congenital heart disorders, and age all increase the likelihood of developing CSA. 

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is far more common, affecting most people who have been diagnosed with sleep apnea. With obstructive sleep apnea, physical factors are more at play. Instead of your throat muscles staying open while you sleep, people with OSA relax too much and block the flow of air into the upper airways. 

Obesity, enlarged adenoids or tonsils, age, family history, nasal congestion, and substance use (tobacco or alcohol consumption) can all increase the risk of developing OSA. 

What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

Snoring is one of obstructive sleep apnea’s first and most recognizable symptoms. For some, the snoring can be so loud it makes you wake up.

In addition to snoring, other sleep apnea symptoms include daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, morning headaches and sore throats, high blood pressure, and gasping or breathing pauses when sleeping. 

How Can You Address Snoring and Sleep Apnea?

If you deal with snoring that is disrupting your quality of life, there are various non-invasive ways to manage it. The best course of action will depend on the cause of your snoring — specifically, whether sleep apnea is behind your symptoms.

Oral appliances are one of the easiest ways to start addressing snoring issues. These appliances, usually prescribed and custom fit by a dentist, are worn in the mouth overnight. They help reposition the jaw, mouth, and throat so that the muscles are less likely to relax and narrow the airways. 

Sleep apnea treatment is a bit more involved. In most cases, treatment for sleep apnea entails the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. CPAP machines deliver pressurized (and sometimes oxygenated) air to the airways at a constant rate. 

The pressure keeps the airways open at all times, preventing them from collapsing and causing sleep apnea events. Other options include auto-adjusting positive airway pressure (APAP) and bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machines.

For people with severe sleep apnea, surgical implants are another treatment option. These devices are surgically inserted in the mouth and upper chest, stimulating the hypoglossal nerve and keeping the throat from relaxing too much. 

Focusing on lifestyle changes and sleep hygiene can also help with the management of snoring and sleep apnea treatment — losing weight, getting more physical activity, and reducing substance use, for example, may help minimize your risk factors and support your overall health. 

Keeping your sleeping environment dark, comfortable, and supportive is also beneficial to keep any factors outside of snoring or sleep apnea from waking you up. 

What Are the Long-Term Consequences of Snoring and Sleep Apnea?

Snoring and sleep apnea can also both have long-term consequences, especially if not caught and treated appropriately. 

The first and most obvious consequence of both issues is a lack of quality sleep — sleep is one of the most crucial components of optimal health, as this is the time when your body rests and rejuvenates itself. If you’re not getting the rest and recovery time you need, it can wreak havoc on your physical and mental wellness. 

Other potential long-term consequences of sleep apnea include an increased risk of certain cardiovascularhealth conditions (like heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure), daytime fatigue that can impact your decision-making ability and mood, and the development of type 2 diabetes.

How Are Snoring and Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

If you’re dealing with snoring or sleep apnea, a trip to a sleep specialist is in order to diagnose either condition. A sleep medicine provider will talk to you about your symptoms and your medical history (as well as your family’s medical history) while performing a physical exam. 

After looking at all those factors, they will likely order a sleep study (polysomnography) necessary to diagnose sleep apnea. These can be done either at home or in a sleep lab.

During your sleep study, a variety of factors about your sleep will be monitored and recorded, including how many times you stop breathing (have an “apnea event”), what your blood oxygen level is, any arm and leg movements, and your overall pulse rate over the course of the study. Based on your “score,” sleep providers will decide on a course of treatment.

If sleep apnea is not noted during a sleep study, there are other ways to evaluate the potential cause of your snoring. Imaging like X-rays, CT (computerized tomography) scans, and MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) can all give your provider more information about potential physical causes of your sleep issues.

The Bottom Line

Discovering the difference between snoring and sleep apnea is crucial in treating your symptoms appropriately. Snoring that impacts how restful your sleep is should be evaluated as soon as possible by a health professional. One of the causes of snoring, sleep apnea, can have significant long-term consequences if not treated. 

For other ways to improve your sleep and address the psychological factors that may be behind your sleep disturbances, take our free sleep quiz and work with Stellar Sleep to get your rest back on track. 


Why do people snore? | Scientific American

The Diagnosis and Treatment of Snoring in Adults | PMC

Sleep Apnea – Symptoms | NHLBI, NIH

New clinically proven non-invasive treatment for snoring | BDJ Team

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