Is It Allergies or Sleep Apnea? How To Tell The Difference

Medically reviewed by
 Dr. Dagmara Dimitriou

Dr. Dagmara Dimitriou

Dr. Dagmara Dimitriou is a Professor of Sleep Education and Research at University College London and leads Sleep Education and Research Laboratory-SERL, which focuses on research examining sleep and mental…

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When it comes to sleep apnea and allergies, many associated symptoms are the same: daytime sleepiness, headache, feeling cranky throughout the day, reduced attention and snoring throughout the night. What…

Last Updated On June 13th, 2022
Is It Allergies or Sleep Apnea? How To Tell The Difference

When it comes to sleep apnea and allergies, many associated symptoms are the same: daytime sleepiness, headache, feeling cranky throughout the day, reduced attention and snoring throughout the night. What ties these symptoms together is sleep: both conditions tend to affect the duration and quality of your sleep, and not in a good way.

So how do you know if you have allergies or sleep apnea, or even both? In this article, we dig into how these two conditions are similar, how they’re different, and the surprising ways they interact with each other.

The Difference Between Sleep Apnea and Allergies

Sleep Apnea and Its Symptoms

A sleep condition, sleep apnea causes a person to stop breathing while asleep. Lasting 10 seconds or more, these pauses repeat throughout the night. To restart breathing, your body wakes itself up, causing disruptions to your sleep.

There are two types of sleep apnea: central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea. A misfiring of the brain causes central sleep apnea. It simply doesn’t tell the body to breathe. Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, is much more common. It occurs when your upper airways become constricted, limiting the amount of airflow moving into and out of the body.

Symptoms unique to sleep apnea include:

  • Gasping/choking in the middle of the night.
  • Persistent or chronic daytime fatigue, moodiness, and loud snoring.

People with severe sleep apnea may experience upwards of 30 sleep apnea episodes per hour. Even so, they often don’t remember these episodes, making it challenging to connect their daytime symptoms to the condition. Doctors commonly diagnose sleep apnea through a sleep study, in which specialists monitor your brain and body activity while you sleep.

Allergies and their Symptoms

On the other hand, allergies Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source are the immune system’s response to allergens, irritating foreign substances that cause inflammation in the sinuses and nasal passages. What we most often refer to as “allergies” is technically called allergic rhinitis. It also goes by the names of hay fever or seasonal allergies.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 19 million Americans Verified Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The United States’ health protection agency that defends against dangers to health and safety. View source  were diagnosed with allergic rhinitis in 2018. For some, it’s a genuinely seasonal condition, heightened at certain times of the year. Others experience allergies year-round.

Symptoms specific to allergies include:

  • Stuffy or runny nose.
  • Frequent sneezing.
  • Itchy/watery eyes.
  • Itchy sinuses, throat, and ears.
  • Reduced sense of smell.
  • Coughing.
  • Sore throat.
  • Puffiness or discoloration under the eyes.

While OSA patients may not know that they have the condition, people with hay fever can often pinpoint allergies as the cause for their sleeping issues. The general symptoms and discomfort present with allergies make their impact much more apparent.

A doctor typically diagnoses allergies from a description of your symptoms and a physical exam. When allergies are persistent, allergy tests may help you and your doctor identify the specific allergens causing you problems, allowing you to formulate a focused treatment plan.

Effects of Sleep Apnea and Allergies on Sleep

Despite their differences, sleep apnea and allergies can negatively affect the quality of your sleep in surprisingly similar ways. With both sleep apnea and allergies, you may wake up feeling exhausted and moody, often with a headache, despite getting what seemed to be a full night’s sleep.

For sleep apnea patients, the culprit for this poor sleep is the stop-wake-start cycle that defines the condition. With allergies, the cause is not as clearly defined, but the experience is widespread. One study found that sleep interruptions were the number one issue that prompted allergy sufferers to see their doctor. Another study found that allergy sufferers were more likely to report:

  • Insomnia
  • Hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness)
  • Breathing issues, including sleep apnea

Snoring is another common problem for both allergy and sleep apnea patients. In both cases, the airway has become obstructed, whether due to relaxed tissues or excess mucus, disrupting the flow of the breath and causing vibrations that we hear as snoring.

How Allergies Exacerbate Sleep Apnea Symptoms (and Vice Versa)

Swollen tissues and mucus buildup create barriers to breathing that often cause sleep apnea, Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source even in people who don’t usually suffer from the condition.

For those who already experience sleep apnea, allergies can increase the duration and frequency of sleep apnea episodes. Surprisingly, sleep apnea treatment can also bring on allergic rhinitis. One study found a correlation Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source  between allergies and the use of a CPAP machine, a standard treatment for sleep apnea.

Treating Allergies and Sleep Apnea

While treating your allergies won’t necessarily fix sleep apnea, it can improve sleep overall and reduce the worsening of symptoms often caused by allergies.

A few methods used to treat allergies Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source are:

  • Taking antihistamines and other over-the-counter medications intended for managing allergy symptoms.
  • Using a hypoallergenic mattress or pillow to reduce allergens in your bed.
  • Running a humidifier to keep the air at an optimal humidity level.
  • Getting regular allergy shots or other doctor-managed care.

Additionally, more natural ways to manage your allergies can include acupuncture, immunotherapy, and stress management.

For many allergy sufferers, it’s also important to limit your exposure to the allergens that cause irritation, like:

  • Spending more time inside during peak pollen seasons.
  • Managing the allergens in your home with regular cleaning.
  • Showering before bed to clear away allergens that may be lingering on your skin or clothes.

Unsurprisingly, treatment for sleep apnea is very different. Leading ways to manage sleep apnea include:

  • Using CPAP machines or other devices to keep air passages open throughout the night.
  • Losing weight, as sleep apnea is commonly associated with excess weight.
  • Having surgery to permanently open airways.
  • Upgrading to a mattress for sleep apnea or pillows to better support open airways.
  • Positional therapy which is a behavioral strategy

Professor Dagmara Dimitriou adds, “Also, making certain lifestyle changes such as optimizing diet, removing unhealthy habits, and implementing positive daily routines has been shown to have a good impact on sleep apnea symptoms”.

Special Notes for CPAP Machine Users

To ensure that your CPAP machine doesn’t contribute to your allergies, you should clean it regularly. Always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for proper care.

If a stuffy nose limits the effectiveness of your CPAP, you might want to consider changing your mask. A full-face mask covers both your nose and mouth, delivering air when and where you need it, even if your nose is clogged.

Allergy sufferers may also want to be careful about choosing a CPAP machine with a humidifier. A CPAP machine that doesn’t have a humidifier may cause irritation otherwise.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can allergies bring on sleep apnea?

Yes, severe allergic reactions where the sinuses are stuffed up can cause snoring or the more serious obstructive sleep apnea. Even if you’re not experiencing nasal congestion, if your allergies cause your tonsils and/or adenoids to swell, they can block your windpipe and cause sleep apnea symptoms.

Allergies have been linked to worsened symptoms of sleep apnea, as has asthma. Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source Likely in part because these conditions have overlapping risk factors.

Can CPAP therapy help with allergies?

Yes, using a CPAP machine with a humidifier can ease allergy symptoms such as congestion and dry mouth. Using a CPAP machine without a humidifier can irritate the nose because your body has to heat up the air as it enters. The humidifier ensures the air flowing into your nose is already warmed, easing the strain on your body.

Can allergy medicine help with sleep apnea?

It can depend on the medication. Over-the-counter antihistamines used to alleviate allergies can be sedating for some people, however people with untreated sleep apnea may find the medication worsens the problem. On a similar note, general sleep aid medication isn’t recommended for people with sleep apnea.

However, using allergy medication to decrease nasal congestion can also relieve sleep apnea symptoms. So instead of relying on allergic medication that has a soporific effect in patients, we recommend allergy medication that can handle potential blockages such as mucus and swollen tissues.

If you’re trying to ease symptoms of both allergies and sleep apnea, it’s important to speak with your doctor about balancing treatments for maximum effectiveness.

Can food allergies cause sleep apnea?

Yes, it’s possible for an allergic reaction to food to be linked to sleep apnea symptoms. A food allergy can cause inflammation, and the swollen tissues can in turn cause the body to make more mucus. The swollen tissues and increased congestion can leave you struggling to breathe as you sleep.

Does lack of sleep from sleep apnea make allergies worse?

Yes, not getting enough sleep because of sleep apnea or just in general can make allergy symptoms worse. It can also be a vicious cycle, with allergies making it more difficult to fall asleep and that lack of sleep worsening symptoms.

Stress can also amplify Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source allergy symptoms, and people who are sleep-deprived often find themselves more stressed or anxious than a person who’s had a good night’s rest.

Conclusion

While allergies and sleep apnea are separate issues requiring separate approaches, the experience of seasonal allergies can make sleep apnea worse and impact the effectiveness of its treatment. If you are suffering from allergies or suspect that you may have sleep apnea, it’s essential to talk to your doctor and take precautions to improve your sleep.


About the author

Carolyn Rousch is a new contributor to the Early Bird blog. Based in Tucson, Arizona, she is a freelance lifestyle writer and hobby photographer with a master's degree from Texas A&M University, where she studied data analytics. Carolyn is more of an early bird than a night owl, and she is passionate about learning and writing on topics that help people to embrace their best lives. Understanding and getting good sleep is, of course, always a great start.

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