What is the Difference Between Sleep Apnea and Snoring?

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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
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Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that compromises one’s ability to breathe properly while sleeping. Unlike snoring, which is the result of obstructed respiration, sleep apnea is often caused by a combination of contributing factors, which may include an excessive narrowing of the throat and the presence of disease. Individuals with certain risk factors, including obesity, may be more susceptible to developing this potentially serious condition. Treatment for sleep apnea and snoring is generally dependent on the severity of one’s condition and may include lifestyle changes, the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask, and, in some cases, surgery.

Individuals with sleep apnea and snoring often seek medical treatment when their symptoms begin to interfere with their ability to function in everyday life. During an initial examination and consultation, a physician may recommend the symptomatic individual participate in a sleep study at a sleep disorder center to further evaluate his or her condition. A diagnostic test known as a nocturnal polysomnography may be utilized and involves the placement of monitoring equipment on the individual so his or her vital signs, blood oxygen levels, and electrical activity may be monitored during sleep. Disruptions that occur during the course of the test may be assessed to support a diagnosis and aid with determining the extent of the apnea.


There are varying degrees of sleep apnea and each possesses its own presentation. Nearly all individuals with sleep apnea experience snoring, whether they realize it or not. When manifesting in the presence of apnea, snoring serves as a symptom and not as an episodic, benign occurrence. As the muscles in the throat relax, one’s airway narrows and the flow of breath causes the tissues to vibrate resulting in a snore. During an apneic episode, the muscles in one’s throat relax to the point that the individual's respiration temporarily ceases.

The most common presentation of apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. Oftentimes accompanied by loud snoring, obstructive sleep apnea may intermittently disrupt one’s sleep. Not realizing he or she has awakened, the individual will often slip back into sleep without knowing what triggered his or her waking. During an episode, the relaxation of the throat muscles temporarily halts respiration causing a loud choking or snorting sound. Individuals with this type of sleep apnea are rarely able to fall into a deep, restful sleep and often awaken feeling tired and sluggish.

More serious forms of sleep apnea, known as central and complex sleep apnea, often result from a miscommunication in the brain during an apneic episode. Often occurring in the presence of a secondary medical condition, such as heart disease, individuals with central sleep apnea and snoring may awaken with more pronounced shortness of breath. As with obstructive apnea, individuals with central and complex presentations of the condition may likewise experience excessive daytime sleepiness, known as hypersomnia, and loud, persistent snoring.

Additional signs and symptoms may develop in the presence of sleep apnea and snoring. Aside from the tell-tale snoring and waking abruptly from sleep, individuals may experience sore throat, headache, and dry mouth upon waking. Those who develop severe hypersomnia may find that their ability to function becomes compromised, leaving them unable to safely drive or participate in everyday activities.

Those who are diagnosed with mild presentations of sleep apnea and snoring may be instructed to make lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking, to alleviate his or her symptoms. When lifestyle changes are not enough, additional treatment options may include the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask when the individual sleeps. When traditional, non-surgical treatment options prove unsuccessful, surgery may be necessary. Most surgeries involve the removal of excessive tissues, jaw realignment, or tracheostomy placement depending on the severity of the apneic condition.



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