Tonsillitis, Snoring, and Sleep Apnea

Are They Connected?

Man snoring.
Man snoring.. Turbo / Getty Images

Can Enlarged Tonsils Make Me Snore or Have Sleep Apnea?

Enlarged tonsils caused by tonsillitis can cause snoring and sleep apnea or worsen current sleep disorders worse. Tonsillitis is especially common in children who suffer from sleep apnea and is a common reason that tonsillectomies are performed in the United States. While more rare, enlarged tonsils may also cause sleep apnea or snoring in adults as well.

It should be noted that while snoring can be associated with sleep apnea not all people who snore have sleep apnea. Snoring occurs due to vibration of the soft tissues in the upper airway, enlarged tonsillar tissue can contribute to these noises.

Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition that causes a person to stop breathing during their sleep. As the name implies this is usually caused by an obstruction of the airway (including swollen tonsils). Obstructive sleep apnea significantly diminishes the quality of your sleep; symptoms of OSA can range from mild to severe and if left untreated OSA can lead to serious health consequences. Common symptoms of OSA may include:

  • snoring or noisy breathing during sleep
  • pauses during breathing while sleeping (this is usually observed by a parent or spouse)
  • choking or gasping during sleep
  • restless sleep
  • excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS)
  • children with OSA may develop hyperactivity, behavioral or social problems
  • difficulty waking up in the morning
  • morning headaches
  • memory or learning problems
  • irritability, depression, mood swings
  • mouth breathing which may lead to dry mouth or sore throat upon waking

Removing The Tonsils To Treat Sleep Apnea

Has your doctor recommended a tonsillectomy or are you considering whether or not this would help stop your child's snoring?

Approximately 79% of children have a tonsillectomy surgery for OSA experienced a resolution of their symptoms. Whereas if you wait, symptoms of sleep apnea will resolve on their own only about half the time. Having a discussion with your physician will help you know if waiting would be the better option for you since there are some risks with having a tonsillectomy.

If you are an adult with sleep apnea, your physician may elect to perform a tonsillectomy to improve symptoms. While this is less commonly the cause of sleep apnea in adults, if your enlarged tonsils are contributing, a tonsillectomy is a very successful treatment option. If tonsillectomy does not resolve your symptoms, then you have another cause of sleep apnea.

Other Causes of Sleep Apnea

You should know, that while tonsillectomy has been shown to cure sleep apnea in cases when enlarged tonsils are the cause, there are many other reasons you may experience sleep apnea. Other potential causes of OSA include:

  • being overweight or obese
  • nose or sinus problems including deviated septum, nasal polyps, excessive congestion, enlarged adenoids, or enlarged turbinates
  • your natural anatomy, including the size of your tongue, and the opening of your windpipe, as well as the shape of your head and neck
  • neurological problems
  • getting older
  • your throat muscles or your tongue tend to relax more during sleep than the average person


American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. Treatment Options for Adults with Snoring. Accessed: October 30, 2015 from

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Tonsil surgery improves some behaviors in children with sleep apnea syndrome. Accessed: October 30, 2015 from

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. What are the Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea? Accessed: October 30, 2015 from

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. What Causes Sleep Apnea? Accessed: October 30, 2015 from

NCBI. Tonsillectomy as a treatment of obstructive sleep apnea in adults with tonsillar hypertrophy. Accessed: October 30, 3015 from

URMC. Obstructive Sleep Apnea.  Accessed October 30, 2015 from

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