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Reading for a friend? Or maybe you kinda-sorta sound like a helicopter when you sleep? Yes, sleep apnea is a legit medical condition with potentially serious complications.
The deets on obstructive sleep apnea:
It’s a common sleep disorder where your breathing is interrupted during sleep.
If left untreated, it can contribute to type 2 diabetes and heart disease and increase your likelihood of a heart attack or stroke.
Sleep apnea doesn’t affect only dads and English bulldogs. It affects toddlers, kids, and adults of all genders and body shapes. Let’s break it down.
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Don’t let sleep apnea catch you off guard.
Sleep apnea has a boatload of signs and symptoms, including these:
- You snore LOUDLY.
- Your sleep partner says you snore and sometimes stop breathing when you sleep.
- You occasionally wake up choking or gasping.
- You frequently wake up suddenly with shortness of breath.
- You wake up with a dry mouth.
- You often wake up to use the bathroom.
- You often wake up with a headache.
- You have difficulty staying asleep.
- You feel sleepy during the day.
- You’re irritable and moody.
- You have trouble paying attention, concentrating, and remembering things during the day.
- You have risk factors for sleep apnea, such as higher body weight, alcohol consumption, or smoking.
- You’ve lost interest in sex or are experiencing sexual dysfunction.
Some overlapping symptoms:
- difficulty learning
- frequent distraction
- poor academic performance
Other signs your child may have sleep apnea:
- mouth breathing (both when asleep and when awake)
- interrupted breathing during sleep
- daytime sleepiness
Some nighttime and daytime signs your tiny tot may have sleep apnea:
- difficulty breathing
- pauses in breathing during sleep
- excessive sweating
- choking or coughing
- irritability, crankiness, and frustration
- falling asleep at inappropriate times
- tonsil- or adenoid-related health issues
- delays in weight and height development
A lot of these signs align with typical toddler behavior, so it can be tricky to tell if they’re really symptoms of sleep apnea. Keep a log of symptoms to discuss with your child’s pediatrician.
Some key items to track:
- time of day each symptom occurred
- possible related factors (diet, stressors, illness, etc.)
If you or your child has many of the symptoms listed above, it’s a good idea to chat with your healthcare provider. They can help you determine if it’s really sleep apnea or if you might have something else goin’ on.
Your doc may recommend that you see a sleep specialist for testing.
Tests and diagnosis: Will I have to sleep in a lab?
Sleep specialists diagnose sleep apnea by conducting a sleep study (aka polysomnography).
The test monitors way more than your average sleep tracker, including:
- brain waves
- eye movement
- blood oxygen levels
- snoring and gasping
- pauses in breathing during sleep
Diagnosing sleep apnea in kiddos
If you suspect sleep apnea is affecting your child, their pediatrician will be able to help. They may suggest seeing an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) to rule out tonsil and adenoid issues.
They may also suggest seeing a pulmonologist (lung specialist), who will examine your child’s upper airway. Allergies are another possible culprit for toddler sleep issues.
Sleep apnea is the result of your throat muscles getting a little too much R&R. As the muscles relax, your airway tightens, reducing normal breathing.
This triggers a chain reaction. The restricted breathing lowers your blood oxygen level, causing a buildup of carbon dioxide. Your brain picks up on the danger and wakes you so you can resume normal breathing. (Not all heroes wear capes.)
Like “Groundhog Day,” the pattern can replay 5 to 30 times per hour, all night long. The frequent interruptions can disrupt healthy sleep cycles and leave you feeling like crap during the day.
Many people with sleep apnea have no idea they’re waking in the night, so check in with any sleep partner you might have or consider filming yourself while you sleep. (Unless you’re afraid of capturing freaky stuff a la “Paranormal Activity.”)
Sleep apnea can happen to anyone, but some factors increase the likelihood:
- Higher body weight. Fat deposits around your airways can impair breathing. Obesity, polycystic ovary syndrome, and hypothyroidism are all associated with sleep apnea. But not everyone with sleep apnea has a higher body weight, and vice versa. Folks of any weight can experience it.
- Narrow airways. Your airways can be naturally narrow, or you may have enlarged tonsils or adenoids blocking your airway.
- High blood pressure (hypertension). Sleep apnea is common in people with hypertension.
- Chronic nasal congestion. Possibly due to narrowed airways, people who have nasal congestion are twice as likely to experience breathing issues during sleep.
- Smoking. Just don’t do it. Sleep apnea is just one of a long list of health issues linked to smoking.
- Sex. Sorry, men, but you’re twice as likely as premenopausal women to develop sleep apnea. For women, the risk increases after menopause.
- Genetics. It runs in the family.
- Asthma. Research suggests an association between sleep apnea and asthma.
- Diabetes. Sleep apnea is common in folks with diabetes.
Treating sleep apnea usually requires a multipronged approach, combining lifestyle changes, gadgets, and procedures.
Common recommendations include losing weight, quitting smoking, changing sleep positions, using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, and undergoing surgery.
What’s a CPAP?
A CPAP machine is the most common treatment option for sleep apnea. It’s a mask you wear while you sleep that delivers constant airflow through your nose. The steady flow of air keeps your breathing consistent through the night so your brain doesn’t have to wake you up.
Kicking it up a notch with procedures and gadgets
Upper airway stimulation
Some folks can’t use a CPAP and instead try upper airway stimulation, also known as Inspire. It’s a small pulse generator that’s inserted under the skin of your upper chest.
A wire goes from the device to your lungs and detects your natural breathing pattern. Another wire goes up your neck and conducts your airway muscles so they stay open. You can control the device with a handheld remote control to queue it up before bed and power it down in the morning. (Go-go, gadget Inspire!)
Somnoplasty: Honey, I shrunk my soft palate
This is a minimally invasive procedure designed to shrink and tenderize the soft palate at the back of your throat.
This procedure corrects nasal issues that cause wonky breathing, like that deviated septum you got when you broke your nose as a kid.
Say that 10 times fast! This procedure removes soft tissue from the back of your throat, widening your airway, so you can breathe more freely.
Maxillomandibular advancement surgery
This procedure corrects facial issues and throat blockages that can trigger sleep apnea.
Here are some natural options to try at home to improve mild sleep apnea:
Sleeping on your back is the most common trigger of breathing issues. To stop yourself from rolling onto your back, try pinning a sock filled with tennis balls to the back of your PJs.
There’s no shortage of pillows to help combat sleep apnea. Some pillows are designed to be used with a CPAP and some without.
The American Sleep Apnea Association recommends sleeping on your back with your upper body elevated to help keep your airways open. You’ll also want to swap soft pillows for foam wedges.
Shop for anti-snoring pillows.
Worn during sleep, a dental appliance similar to a sports mouth guard can support your jaw in a way that keeps your upper airway open.
Shop for anti-snoring mouth devices.
A variety of nose appliances can help you breathe better at night. Depending on the severity of your sleep apnea, consider some of these popular options:
- Sleep apnea is a condition characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep.
- Signs and symptoms can be observed both at night and during the day. For instance, you might feel tired and have trouble concentrating in the daytime in addition to choking and waking up during the night.
- Sleep apnea can happen to anyone, but it’s more common in folks with higher body weight, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and narrowed airways.
- A primary care doctor, sleep specialist, or pediatrician can help you reach a diagnosis and determine a treatment plan.
- Treatment options include lifestyle changes, medical devices, and surgical procedures.