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Snoring vs. Sleep Apnea

For most people, trying to sleep in the same room as someone who is snoring is annoying – but could snoring be indicative of a bigger, more serious problem, such as sleep apnea?

A Closer Look at Snoring

Though snoring tends to affect overweight males more, it is actually a common problem among both males and females, affecting roughly 90 million American adults (37 million on a regular basis).

Snoring vs. Sleep Apnea

While you sleep, the muscles of your throat relax, your tongue falls backward, and your throat becomes narrow and “floppy.” As you breathe, the walls of the throat begin to vibrate – generally when you breathe in, but also, to a lesser extent, when you breathe out. These vibrations lead to the characteristic sound of snoring.

The narrower your airway becomes, the greater the vibration and the louder your snoring. Sometimes the walls of the throat collapse completely so that it is completely occluded, creating a condition called apnea (cessation of breathing). This is a serious condition that requires medical attention.


  • Snoring usually becomes more serious as people age.
  • Daytime dysfunction & heart disease are believed to be linked to snoring.
  • Approximately ½ of people who snore loudly have obstructive sleep apnea.


Other Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

People who snore make a vibrating, rattling, noisy sound while breathing during sleep. While snoring may not necessarily be a sign of sleep apnea, you should consult your doctor if you snore and have any of the following:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headaches
  • Recent weight gain
  • Waking up in the morning not feeling rested
  • Waking up at night feeling confused
  • Change in your level of attention, concentration, or memory
  • Significant pauses in breathing during sleep

7 Causes & Risk Factors Associated with Snoring

Whether or not you snore can be the result of several risk factors.

#1 – Aging

The normal aging process leads to the relaxation of the throat muscles, thus resulting in snoring.

#2 – Anatomical Abnormalities

Anatomical abnormalities of the nose and throat, such as enlarged tonsils or adenoids, nasal polyps, or deviated nasal septum cause exaggerated narrowing of the throat during sleep and thus lead to snoring.

#3 – Functional Abnormalities

Functional abnormalities (e.g. inflammation of the nose and/or throat as may occur during respiratory infection or during allergy season) will result in snoring.

#4 – Sleep Position

Sleep position, such as sleeping on your back, may lead to snoring in some people.

#5 – Alcohol

Alcohol is a potent muscle relaxant, and consuming alcohol in the evening can cause snoring.

#6 – Muscle Relaxers

Muscle relaxants taken in the evening may lead to or worsen snoring in some individuals.

#7 – Obesity

One of the most important risk factors is obesity, and in particular having a lot of fatty tissue around the neck.

Man sleeping while wearing a CPAP mask.

Treatment for Sleep Apnea

Snorers are generally unaware of their snoring, and must rely on the observations of their bed-partners. Some snorers may wake up at night choking and gasping for breath, but this occurs relatively infrequently.

If you have been told that your snoring is disturbing to others, or you have some of the symptoms and signs listed above, consult your doctor.

What Your Doctor will Do for You

During your appointment, your doctor will take your history and perform a physical exam. Depending on the outcome, he or she will decide whether you require a consultation with a sleep specialist and/or a sleep test to determine if you have sleep apnea.

What Happens After a Sleep Study?

Depending on the results of the sleep study, you will be presented with a series of options to treat snoring. These will generally include:

#1 – Lifestyle Modification

  • avoidance of risk factors mentioned above
  • sleep position training if applicable
  • treatment of allergies if applicable

#2 – Surgery

  • generally on the back of the throat and roof of the mouth, or the nose if applicable, using a variety of instruments including scalpel, laser, or microwaves

#4 – Appliances

  • oral appliances constructed by a dentist experienced in treatment of snoring and sleep apnea
  • other appliances, such as nasal dilators

#5 – Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

  • a continuous positive airway pressure appliance which blows room air into the back of the throat thus preventing it from collapse

If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to daytime dysfunction and can put you at a higher risk for heart disease. If you think you may have sleep apnea or if you are experiencing issues with snoring, you should make an appointment with your doctor or a sleep specialist. He or she will be able to discuss possible treatment options.

Resources: National Sleep Foundation

About Imtiaz Khurshid, MD

Dr. Khurshid is a Pulmonologist & Sleep Medicine physician with WakeMed Physician Practices.