You have a partner or a child who snores. Is it just snoring, or is it sleep apnea? Is it a big deal, or should you just ignore it? Here’s what you should know about snoring and sleep apnea.

How to Tell the Difference

We’re all familiar with snoring. Snoring is simply the sound made when air is partially blocked as it passes through the mouth, nose, and throat. It may be loud or soft. It may go all night long or may last only a short amount of time. But what sets it apart from sleep apnea is that the breathing itself doesn’t stop.

While sleep apnea often involves snoring – sometimes snoring so loud, it disturbs a partner’s sleep – the hallmark of sleep apnea is not snoring, but the complete stoppage of breath at certain moments. There can be up to 100 of these episodes per night, some lasting a minute or more, during which oxygen is cut off from the body. The sleeper is unlikely to be aware of this, as these episodes don’t tend to wake them up.

There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), caused by an obstruction in the airway; central sleep apnea, caused by the brain’s failure to signal the muscles to breathe during sleep; and mixed sleep apnea, a combination of the two. Whatever the type, they all involve the same thing: disturbed sleep and impaired oxygen flow.

Are Snoring and Sleep Apnea Always Bad?

Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, but it can also be a harmless (if annoying) habit.

Sleep apnea is not harmless. It’s been linked to a variety of life-shortening conditions, including blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Even automobile accidents are associated with this condition, as sleep deprived sufferers are more likely to fall asleep behind the wheel.

People with sleep apnea also experience a lower quality of life, with unrestful sleep, daytime sleepiness, and declines in cognitive function, and have reported a higher incidence of headaches, impotence, and weight gain.

Sleep Apnea in Children

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the prevalence of sleep apnea in children is as low as 2-3% but may be as high as 10-20% (compared to 26% of adults). They can be diagnosed as early as four or five.

Sleep apnea in children has been linked to a number of behavioral and physical problems. Many children with sleep apnea are diagnosed with ADHD, whose behavior and learning problems stem from lack of quality sleep. They are more likely to have lower grades and even their physical development is affected, as the body grows during sleep, which is impaired.

Parents can look out for snoring, “purring,” mouth breathing, daytime sleepiness, behavioral and learning issues, and bedwetting as possible signs of sleep apnea in their child.

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea and Getting Help

A sleep study is the best way to get a diagnosis. This is an overnight session in a medical setting where sleep is monitored to pinpoint the problem. Treatment may involve the use of a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine at night, surgery, or oral appliances. In some patients, weight loss is also very helpful for managing sleep apnea.

For children, a CPAP machine or surgery may be overkill when a simple orthodontic device can do the trick. I’ve seen life-changing results from a simple expander, which can help open up the air passage. An orthodontist can do a sleep apnea screening on your child and discuss treatment options.

As sleep apnea is not just an annoyance but has a major impact on health and quality of life, it’s imperative to take steps to address it now. You’ll be glad you did.