Narcolepsy and sleep apnea cause excessive daytime sleepiness — but they are different conditions and require different treatments.

Maybe your partner tells you about your snoring, or you’re waking up with a headache every morning. Perhaps you’re having vivid dreams or a sudden loss of muscle tone (cataplexy).

Sleep deprivation can impact your overall health and quality of life.

If you’re spending your nights tossing and turning and your days feeling exhausted, then you may be experiencing a sleep disorder like narcolepsy or sleep apnea.

Both are conditions with similar symptoms — many of which may affect your daily life.

Learning the signs of each sleep disorder can help you distinguish between the two so you can receive the proper treatment and start sleeping better.

Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological condition that affects how your brain regulates your sleep-wake cycles.

People with this condition may feel tired throughout the day and fall asleep at unfortunate times — like when driving a car or at their work desk.

Bouts of sleep may last several seconds to several minutes, occurring at any time during the day.

Narcolepsy occurs in about 1 in 2,000 people and can affect both men and women equally. This disorder usually begins between the ages of 10 and 20 and peaks again around the age of 35.


Narcolepsy has five main symptoms that represent the acronym CHESS. They are:

  • cataplexy
  • hallucinations
  • excessive daytime sleepiness
  • sleep disruption
  • sleep paralysis

While excessive daytime sleepiness remains the most common symptom, not everyone will experience all five symptoms.

In fact, only 10% to 25% of people experience all other symptoms.

Moreover, you should know that clinicians have named two types of narcolepsy — type 1 and type 2. Only a diagnosed clinician can determine which type of narcolepsy you may be experiencing, but differences have to do with the presence of cataplexy.

Treatment options

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), there is no cure for narcolepsy. However, you can control your symptoms with treatment.

Treatment often includes medications like antidepressants or stimulants, as well as lifestyle changes like a structured sleep schedule. Some treatment plans advocate for scheduled naps throughout the day to help manage your symptoms.

Support groups are also beneficial for people with narcolepsy. Attending meetings can teach you new ways to cope with your condition and help you feel less isolated.

Sleep apnea is a more common sleep disorder that causes a person to stop breathing in their sleep. These episodes can occur frequently throughout the night.

If you’re a loud snorer or awake in the night with difficulty breathing, you may show signs of sleep apnea.

There are several types of sleep apnea, including:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This is the most common form and occurs when your muscles relax and your tongue rolls back and creates a blockage in your throat.
  • Central sleep apnea. This less common type of sleep apnea occurs when your brain doesn’t send your body signals to breathe.
  • Complex sleep apnea. This is a mix of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.


Like narcolepsy, a common sign of sleep apnea is excessive daytime sleepiness. People often feel fatigued all day long because they don’t get a good night’s sleep.

Other common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • loud snoring
  • gasping for air during sleep
  • morning headaches
  • restless sleep
  • mood or behavior changes
  • trouble concentrating

These symptoms may wreak havoc on your quality of sleep, which is why many people who experience sleep apnea report difficulties in their mental health. Sleep apnea can be associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression, so it’s essential that you seek help for your overall health.

Treatment options

If you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor may make recommendations, such as lifestyle changes like losing weight, quitting smoking, or using a breathing device such as a CPAP machine to help you maintain an open airway while you sleep.

Other possible treatments for sleep apnea include:

  • oral devices
  • implants
  • mouthpieces
  • surgical procedures

While the treatment process for sleep apnea can take time to find the right remedies, you’ll be so glad that you’re taking steps toward better sleep and better health once you find adequate help.

The most common similarity between narcolepsy and sleep apnea is that they are both sleep disorders that cause extreme sleepiness throughout the daytime.

They also share the same risk factors, including obesity and genetic predispositions to sleep disorders.

If you have narcolepsy or sleep apnea, you may also experience restless sleep and have trouble concentrating throughout the day.

Even with all these similarities, the two conditions are different.

Narcolepsy is rare and may affect fewer than 1% of people in the United States.

Sleep apnea proves a more common disorder that affects 34% of men and 17% of women in the United States.

Narcolepsy usually first appears when you are a child or before the age of 20. Sleep apnea tends to begin in middle-aged or older adults.

Sleep apnea usually occurs because of a blockage in your throat. Narcolepsy may come from a low level of hypocretin, a chemical in your brain.

Research suggests that narcolepsy and sleep apnea may coexist in the same patient. A 2010 study found that out of 133 patients with narcolepsy, almost 23% also had sleep apnea.

A 2019 study found that patients that were treated at a young age for narcolepsy may eventually develop sleep apnea which is associated with aging and weight gain.

A more recent study confirms that many experience both together. But once someone receives treatment for sleep apnea, their ability to deal with narcolepsy symptoms improves considerably.

Doctors still debate why and how sleep apnea appears common among those with narcolepsy. They think it may have something to do with other sleep disruptions that occur with these disorders.

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes attacks of extreme sleepiness that can appear at any time of the day. People can also experience cataplexy or vivid-like dreams.

In contrast, sleep apnea is a condition that causes a person to stop breathing in their sleep. People with this disorder are more likely to snore or make gasping noises while sleeping.

If you are concerned about any of these symptoms, consider seeking a healthcare professional who can give you a proper diagnosis.

Living with either of these conditions can be challenging. However, making lifestyle changes and seeking medical assistance can help you make the changes you need to get restful sleep and live a long, healthy, and restorative life.