What’s the Difference Between Insomnia and Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea and insomnia are both common sleep disorders. Sleep apnea occurs when there is a repeated air blockage in the upper airway or a pause in breathing during sleep. Insomnia is when a person has difficulty falling or staying asleep. It can be short-term or chronic. Both can negatively affect your quality of life and cause health problems if left untreated.

This article reviews both disorders, as well as their symptoms, causes, and treatments.

Man with sleep apnea laying on bed

Somsak Bumroongwong / EyeEm / Getty Images

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is when someone has trouble falling or staying asleep. Insomnia can be short-term, as in a few nights or weeks, or chronic, which lasts for months or even years.

In many cases, short-term insomnia results from daily stress, changes to your schedule, or an environmental change, such as moving to another time zone.

Long-term chronic insomnia may be due to a physiological issue and often cannot be explained by a physical health problem or other clear issues.

Symptoms

Difficulty falling or staying asleep are the primary symptoms of insomnia. However, many other symptoms can result from a lack of sleep, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Poor test or work performance
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Difficulty staying awake during the day
  • Behavioral issues
  • Increased risk for accidents

Symptoms of short-term insomnia may go away on their own once the temporary situation that caused it is over. However, short-term insomnia can become chronic, especially if the stress is not processed or managed effectively.

Complications of Chronic Insomnia

Left untreated, complications of chronic insomnia can lead to serious health problems or make current health conditions worse, such as:

Causes

Studies estimate that insomnia affects between 10%-30% of adults worldwide, though some studies suggest even higher rates.

Some factors that may put you at a higher risk of developing insomnia include:

  • Age
  • Sex (women are more likely to develop insomnia than men)
  • Occupation (shift-workers who work unusual hours have higher insomnia rates)
  • Family history
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety
  • Medications
  • Pain issues
  • Short-term or chronic stress
  • Caffeine, alcohol, or eating heavy meals before bed
  • Neurological problems, such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia
  • Neurodevelopmental issues, such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder
  • Sleep specific disorders, such as restless leg syndrome or sleepwalking

Treatment

Treatment for insomnia requires a diagnosis from your healthcare provider. You will need to discuss symptoms and the duration of your insomnia.

Upon diagnosis, there are several treatment options. In many cases, complementing treatments with other treatments may help get the best overall results. The goal of treatment is to get back to normal sleep conditions and resolve the symptoms of insomnia.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological therapy that is often the first line of treatment because it doesn't require medication. Studies have also found CBT to reduce insomnia across many different populations effectively.

A licensed therapist can provide CBT to help patients identify stressors causing insomnia and replace them with healthier attitudes and beliefs.

There are also several classes of medications used to assist with insomnia. Often medication is used along with CBT for more significant results.

Some medications used to treat insomnia include:

  • Benzodiazepines: These are a type of psychoactive depressant medication, also used to treat anxiety.
  • Nonbenzodiazepines: Also called z-drugs, these act similar to benzodiazepines but do not have the same risk for abuse.
  • Melatonin receptor agonists: These help the brain reuptake melatonin to promote sleepiness.
  • Orexin receptor antagonists: These are medications that block orexin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps to keep you awake.
  • Over-the-counter medications: This can include diphenhydramine, an antihistamine used to help insomnia.

Antidepressants and antipsychotics can also help treat insomnia in some cases.

It is important to discuss medication side effects and goals of treatment with your healthcare provider.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep-related breathing disorder. It occurs when the upper airway becomes blocked continuously during sleep. This disrupts sleep by stopping or reducing airflow. It can lead to many other health conditions, like stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and more.

Central sleep apnea, a less common type, occurs if the brain doesn't signal the body to breathe. This results in breathing pauses due to a lack of respiratory effort.

Symptoms

Sleep apnea repeatedly disrupts sleep and prevents those who suffer from it from achieving a good night's sleep.

Some of the symptoms of sleep apnea include:

Side Effects of Untreated Sleep Apnea

Untreated sleep apnea can result in lower quality of life and result in accidents and lost productivity at work. In addition, there can be serious side effects of untreated sleep apnea, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Depression
  • Cognitive impairment, which can make driving or operating machinery unsafe
  • Metabolic disorders, such as type 2 diabetes

Causes

The most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea in kids is enlarged tonsils or adenoids.

In adults, obstructive sleep apnea is associated with:

Causes for central sleep apnea may include:

  • Cheyne-stokes breathing (cycled breathing that gradually decreases to a stop)
  • Drug-induced apnea
  • High-altitude periodic breathing (change in oxygen levels can result in breathing too fast and too slow)
  • Medical conditions such as stroke or kidney disease

Sometimes people who have obstructive sleep apnea can develop central sleep apnea. This is known as "mixed sleep apnea."

Treatment

The primary treatment options for sleep apnea include:

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines are the most common treatment for moderate and severe sleep apnea. This involves sleeping with a mask around the nose and mouth during sleep. The mask connects to a machine that provides continuous pressurized airflow into the throat. The airflow prevents the person's airway from collapsing.
  • Oral appliances: An oral appliance is usually the first-line treatment for mild to moderate sleep apnea to provide relief. These devices are similar to a mouthguard. They help keep the mouth open and help prevent the airway muscles from collapsing and restricting airflow.

Sleep apnea may also improve if underlying medical conditions that caused it are addressed and treated.

Insomnia vs. Sleep Apnea

Insomnia involves difficulty in falling or staying asleep. Sleep apnea disrupts sleep from a repeated air blockage or a pause in breathing.

Insomnia and sleep apnea can both negatively affect your sleep quality and cause serious health issues if not addressed and treated correctly.

If you experience any sleep-related issue, contact your healthcare provider for an evaluation.

Summary

Sleep apnea occurs when there is a repeated air blockage in the upper airway or a pause in breathing during sleep. Insomnia is when a person has difficulty falling or staying asleep. Both can be chronic issues that lead to serious health problems if left untreated.

A Word From Verywell

Sleep problems of any kind can be exhausting and frustrating, especially if you don't know why they are occurring. Fortunately, treatments are available that may help you. If you are experiencing any sleep-related issues, see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is sleep apnea curable?

    Sleep apnea doesn't have a cure, but it can be treated effectively. Moderate to severe sleep apnea can be treated by wearing an assistive device during sleep. This involves sleeping with a mask around the nose and mouth during sleep. Another option for mild apnea is to wear an oral appliance to keep the mouth open and help prevent the airway muscles from collapsing and restricting airflow.

    Sleep apnea may also improve if underlying medical conditions that caused it are addressed and treated.

  • What does sleep apnea sound like?

    People who have sleep apnea usually have a chronic, loud snore. The loud snoring may be followed by a period of silence where the sleeping person's breathing almost or entirely stops.

  • How do you know if you have sleep apnea?

    You may suspect you have sleep apnea based on your symptoms, or if you sleep with a partner who observes symptoms. The only way to receive a diagnosis for sleep apnea is to see your healthcare provider, who can examine your airway and discuss your symptoms.

  • How can you help someone with insomnia?

    People who have insomnia may have undiagnosed physical or psychological issues or other reasons for their inability to sleep. The best way to help is to encourage them to talk to their healthcare provider. Fortunately, a provider can offer many helpful treatment options available for insomnia.

  • How do you counteract caffeine insomnia?

    The half-life of caffeine is about 5 hours. However, it can range anywhere from 1.5 to about 9 hours, depending on the person. In many cases, people will need to wait until their body metabolizes it to sleep. The best way to prevent caffeine insomnia is to avoid it entirely during the second half of the day.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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