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Snoring and Sleep Apnea | Understanding the Continuum

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Understanding the differences between snoring and obstructive sleep apnea is an essential step in treating these conditions.

Snoring and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are two conditions that share similarities but have some differences. Both can be caused or made worse by factors such as obesity, aging, or a large tongue and tonsils. Both snoring and OSA can have negative effects on a person’s health, including lessening sleep quality and causing daytime sleepiness as well as causing weight gain, more rapid skin aging, and memory loss. These conditions can also lead to a greater risk of severe conditions such as heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Michael Breus, PhD, a board certified sleep specialist and Sleep Review editorial advisory board member, says, “When we think about breathing during sleep, it goes on a continuum—from normal breathing to sleep apnea. Snoring seems to sit in between these two. Snoring is a narrowing of the airway, which makes the air move faster.” Breus says that physicians who need to determine if a snoring patient has sleep apnea should look for “increased neck circumference (>17 inches), hypertension, obesity, any cardiac history, morning headaches, AM dry mouth, excessive daytime sleepiness, and witnessed apneas.”

Loud frequent snoring is one of the symptoms of OSA. While someone who snores may also suffer from sleep apnea, not all patients with sleep apnea snore. If a person suffers from fatigue and daytime sleepiness and does not feel refreshed after a quality night’s sleep, a sleep specialist should perform a comprehensive examination to determine the appropriate diagnosis.

Causes of Snoring

Snoring is caused by turbulent passages of air traveling over any structure in the mouth and throat of the individual, such as the tonsils, tongue, and adenoids. The abnormal airflow causes vibrations in the uvula and the soft palate in the throat, which results in the snoring sound. Breus says, “Snoring over time with weight gain can certainly lead to apnea. Patients will feel sleepiness and fatigue.”

Effects of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

OSA  is a sleep disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. Evidence suggests OSA is linked with medical conditions including hypertension, heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.

Available Treatments

Breus says, “Snoring solutions are similar to apnea solutions. Anything that will open up the narrowed airway will help.” The gold standard treatment for individuals with OSA is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device,  which functions as an air splint for the airway. Alternative therapies such as  oral appliances, positional therapy, and surgery are also options in some cases. One option, expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP), is available over-the-counter for simple snoring and by prescription for OSA.

Any person who snores or is experiencing other symptoms of OSA should seek care and the appropriate treatment from a physician. Breus says, “I think they are both serious health issues that need to be addressed.”

 Cassandra Perez is associate editor of Sleep Review. CONTACT cperez@nullallied360.com