Snoring and Sleep Apnea : What’s the Difference?

Snoring can be disturbing for your family—and embarrassing for you! As it turns out, if you are in the position of being a person who snores, you are certainly not alone. In fact, more than 90 million Americans are believed to have some sort of snoring activity on a regular basis while they are sleeping.

This loud noise that happens when you breathe during sleep is often caused by the vibration of the back of the throat or the airways in the nose. Airways that are narrowed are more likely to cause snoring, as is the position taken during sleep (sleeping on the back), as well as the use of alcohol or certain medications that tend to relax the throat and tongue muscles.

Some people snore simply because their airways happen to make a noise during sleep, and there is no other problem related to this snoring. (Although some family members might disagree if they are kept awake at night listening to it!). On the other hand, some people’s snoring is related to a serious sleeping disorder referred to as sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition in which either the airways are physically blocked, or the brain “forgets” to signal the respiratory muscles to work as often as they should during sleep. This means that the body stops breathing for a period of time during sleep. In mild cases, these breathing “episodes” may occur just 5-10 times per hour, but some people with a severe form of the condition experience up to 300 breathing episodes per night.

Snoring related to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) disturbs the sleeping patterns and does not allow the person to get a full, restful night’s sleep. Plus, it can eventually starve the person of oxygen needed and increase the amount of carbon dioxide. In addition to loud snoring, some of the other symptoms associated with sleep apnea are:

  • Insomnia or inability to sleep
  • Occasionally waking with a choking feeling or gasping for air
  • Daytime fatigue or sleepiness
  • Tiredness during activity, such as driving or working
  • High blood pressure
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Mood changes, forgetfulness, decreased libido, inability to concentrate
  • Waking up with a throat that feels very dry or sore

Snoring Vs. Sleep Apnea

“Primary” snoring is simply benign loud breathing that happens at night without any other cause. “Secondary” snoring is caused by another health problem, in many cases this is sleep apnea. While obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) almost always leads to loud snoring, the converse is not necessarily true in that snorers do not always have sleep apnea. It is important to know the difference between the two conditions in order to be able to determine how they should be diagnosed and treated.

Common factors that can cause a person to be at risk for both secondary snoring related to sleep apnea or primary snoring include being overweight or obese, having a large neck, smoking, drinking alcohol, having a large tongue and/or tonsils, shape of the head or neck, and even simple aging.

One of the observed signs of sleep apnea that is not present in primary snoring is the act of waking up at night with a feeling of gasping for air or choking. Although the person experiencing this may not actually remember it, sleep apnea can many times be discovered when a partner, roommate, or family member observes this type of activity during sleep.

Diagnosis of Snoring and Sleep Apnea

If you have been told that you snore, or have experienced some of the other symptoms related to it, it’s not just something you have to live with! Many options are available to help you overcome your snoring habits. First of all, seeking help from a sleep specialist or other medical professional to rule out sleep apnea is very important.

A sleep study (polysomnogram) should be performed on you in which various vital signs are observed while you are sleeping. This clinic where the study takes place will likely look and feel like a hotel room (rather than a hospital or doctor’s office) so that you can feel comfortable sleeping. The difference is that various machines will be present to make observations about your sleeping patterns. This may include tests such as heart rate, pulse, blood oxygen levels, leg movement, sleep stages, brain wave activity, breathing activity, and more.

Your doctor will then give you a diagnosis to either rule out or confirm that your snoring is caused by sleep apnea. If you do have sleep apnea, then you’ll be referred on to various treatment options to bring you back to optimal health.

Treatment for Snoring and Sleep Apnea

If you are diagnosed with simple primary snoring, your doctor may suggest that you make some lifestyle changes including losing weight, exercising, eating healthier meals, and even changing your sleeping position from the back to the side or stomach. Losing weight can help minimize both primary snoring and sleep apnea as it makes it less likely that the fleshy parts of the neck and throat will vibrate against one another to cause snoring or blocked airways. In the same way, sleeping on the side or stomach makes it much less likely that the airways will vibrate or close, resulting in less snoring and fewer sleep apnea breathing episodes.

While treatments for sleep apnea may be slightly less simple, most of them are rather non-invasive on the whole. If sleep apnea is related to blocked nasal passages, enlarged adenoids, or swollen tonsils (often in children) then surgery might be suggested to correct the cause of blocked airways. For most people, in addition to weight loss and healthy lifestyle changes, sleep apnea is often treated through the use of a breathing machine.

A Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine is attached through a mask and tubing to the nose during sleep. This machine causes air to continually flow into the airways, preventing them from collapsing and keeping the body breathing in a healthy manner while sleeping.

Because some people find that sleeping with a CPAP machine requires adjustment, certain sleep apnea pillows are often used. These are made from memory foam and have particular slots to allow the CPAP mask to stay affixed properly when sleeping. These pillow are also often made to allow slight elevation to the head or sleeping in a side position, both factors which contribute to better breathing during sleep. Some people who struggle with both snoring and/or sleep apnea find that special adjustable mattresses can also assist with finding a comfortable sleep position that is not flat on the back.


Both snoring and sleep apnea can cause reduced quality of sleep (for yourself or the members of your household!) but sleep apnea is a particularly serious condition that can have dangerous consequences. Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other health problems. If you are concerned about your snoring, contact a medical professional right away to get the care you need.

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