Snoring & Sleep Apnoea – the dangers and the differences?

Snoring and sleep apnoea are more common as a problem than most people think – and often the snorer often doesn’t even realise they’re suffering. Both are Sleep Related Breathing Disorders (SRBD) – and one in five adults has one in some form. Disorders range in severity from the simple but disruptive problem of snoring through to sleep apnoea, where the snorer actually stops breathing.

Complications of Sleep Apnea

Snoring is the most common form of SRBD. The airway becomes restricted, causing the soft tissue to vibrate, which is what makes the snoring noise. The snorer doesn’t know they’re doing it unless they’re told, or someone plays them a recording! It’s the loud, rattling, hoarse, annoying noise created by vibrations from the snorer’s soft palate and the back of their tongue, typically as they breathe in, that often keeps their partner awake and disturbs the rest of the family.

As we get older (and most likely heavier!) our throats get more floppy on the inside. Things like alcohol and sedative medications make this worse, while smoking inflames the soft tissue and narrows our throats even further. Snoring is more than just an annoyance – it can disturb the snorer’s own sleep as well as their partner’s, but more seriously it can lead to sleep apnoea.

Sleep apnoea is when people can’t breathe and sleep at the same time. The snorer has a disrupted breathing pattern during their sleep, caused by a collapse of the upper airways and for a period of time, the snorer stops breathing. It is estimated that 24% of adult men and 9% of adult women between the ages of 30 and 60 have some degree of sleep apnoea. You can think of sleep apnoea as the severe endpoint of snoring. The term used most commonly is obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). In simple terms, that means you have a physical blockage or obstruction in the throat while sleeping, and this causes you to stop breathing.

With sleep apnoea, it’s not so much about breathing too hard; the throat is just too floppy to stay in shape and let the air through. This obstruction can lead to the snorer missing anything from a few breaths to many hundreds during a night, with each gap between breaths lasting around 10 to 20 seconds. The snorer’s partner may notice periods of silence between snores. Sometimes these might wake the snorer up, but often they’ll just start breathing normally again – and snoring – without even being aware that their sleep was disrupted.

Untreated sleep apnoea fragments the sufferer’s sleep and will usually make them sleepy during the day, and it is this that makes an OSA sufferer a real danger to themselves and those around them – particularly if driving a vehicle or operating machinery. Certain factors can mean you’re at greater risk from sleep apnoea:

  • Being overweight
  • Being a heavy snorer
  • A family history of snoring and sleep apnoea
  • Drinking alcohol in the evening
  • Smoking.

The effects of snoring and sleep apnoea Both destroy a good night’s sleep, which can seriously affect your health and even your life expectancy. Sleep is essential for your body and brain to repair and renew itself, and not getting enough sleep can make you drowsy the next day – which is dangerous. Chronic lack of sleep can also contribute to a range of medical conditions including obesity, depression and anxiety.

Snoring itself can also affect your health. It vibrates and hardens the arteries in your throat (this is called atherosclerosis), for instance, while the disruptions in breathing can lead to heart disease, persistent high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke and diabetes. Think of your heart as an engine – it needs air to work

What to do about it? It’s easily treated so be reassured: there’s a range of treatment pathways that can help people stop snoring, and reduce the risk of sleep apnoea. It’s a highly researched subject and a simple oral appliance or chin support strap worn at night, can stop your snoring immediately. Various types of oral appliance are also recommended for treating mild to moderate sleep apnoea before it becomes so bad that breathing equipment called CPAP becomes necessary to be used all night – something to try to avoid.

You should act quickly if you snore and the cost of a mouthpiece is a small outlay to preserve your healthy sleep and that of your family too.