How Sleep Apnea Can Worsen Your Asthma

Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that causes interrupted breathing during sleep. The temporary episodes decrease airflow and cause a person to wake up from sleep. The diminished airflow can reduce oxygen levels in the bloodstream and, over time, increase the risk of heart disease. This condition is associated with several other medical issues, and it can complicate asthma.

Person wearing sleep apnea equipment
D. Sharon Pruitt Pink Sherbet Photography / Moment / Getty Images

Most people who have OSA snore loudly, stop breathing during sleep, and have gasping, choking, gagging, and coughing episodes that wake them up frequently during the night.

Often, the person isn’t aware that they are waking up dozens of times throughout the night. But these episodes lead to restless sleep and therefore daytime fatigue, regardless of how many hours the person tries to sleep.

While most people who have OSA do not have asthma, you can have both conditions. OSA is highly prevalent (34% of males and 17% of females have OSA), and asthma is reasonably prevalent (affecting about 8% of the population), so overlap is not uncommon.

Sleep Apnea and Asthma Symptoms

OSA, especially severe forms, may worsen asthma and asthma symptoms and have a negative impact on the quality of life for people who have asthma. And severe asthma can worsen OSA as well.

Some ways that OSA may influence asthma symptoms are through weakening or irritation around the airways, or narrowing of the airways.

Treatment

There are several treatment options for sleep apnea. The most common, and gold-standard, therapy is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. Other treatments include an oral appliance, which involves wearing a device similar to a retainer while you sleep, and surgery.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the preferred therapy for obstructive sleep apnea. CPAP involves wearing a mask while sleeping. The mask provides a continuous stream of pressurized air to keep the airways open.

CPAP is used at home at night, and it reverses many of the harmful effects of sleep apnea.

Oral Appliance

Despite its industrial-sounding name, an oral appliance is much like an orthodontic retainer. Different types of oral appliances either prevent your tongue from blocking your airway or move your lower jaw forward to keep your airway open while you sleep.

Although CPAP has been shown to be better at reducing interrupted breathing episodes and arousals, an oral appliance is a good option if CPAP therapy isn't working for you.

When getting an oral appliance for sleep apnea, it's best for a dentist to fit you with a custom one.

Surgery

There is a surgical option for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea, called uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP or UP3). This procedure is used to treat several ailments, and it is the most commonly performed surgery for obstructive sleep apnea.

UPPP involves taking out the tonsils and part of the soft palate and uvula. It's recommended for patients who are not overweight or obese. After UPPP surgery, many people still need CPAP therapy.

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