Sleep apnea in children

Obstructive Sleep apnea (OSA) affects one to three percent of children and left untreated can cause serious, long term health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

Sleep apnea, a pause in breathing that may last 10 seconds or longer while sleeping, is a condition that most of us may not associate with children. However, studies show that approximately one to three percent of children have sleep apnea, including those that are undiagnosed.

According to Kids the word apnea comes from the Greek word meaning “without wind.” While it’s quite normal for people to experience short, intermittent pauses in their breathing while sleeping, adults and children who have sleep apnea experience breathing that stops frequently and/or for prolonged periods of time.

What are the causes of Obstructive Sleep apnea (OSA) in children? The American Thoracic Society indicates the following as risk factors:

  • Large tonsils and/or adenoids – This is the most common risk factor because larger tonsils and/or adenoids can cause blockages in the airway. Allergies, acid reflux, sickle cell disease or frequent infections can cause the tonsils or adenoids to grow larger.
  • Obesity – Children who are overweight or obese are more likely to experience sleep apnea.
  • Problems with muscle tone – Throat muscles that relax and block the airway can cause problems with breathing. This condition is more common with children who have muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy.
  • Genetic syndromes – Children who have genetic diseases, such as Down syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome may have OSA.
  • Abnormal face or throat – Children who have abnormalities to the shape of their face or throat (small chin or throat, large tongue or cleft palate) may have problems with OSA.
  • Problems with breathing control – Some brain problems can negatively affect breathing during sleep.
  • Family history – A child’s risk of OSA may increase if another family member has sleep apnea.

The symptoms of sleep apnea in children include snoring, labored breathing, very restless sleep and/or sleeping in unusual positions, frequent awakenings during the night or sudden bed wetting. Sleep apnea can also cause problems for children during the day such as sleepiness, fatigue, extreme tiredness, attention and behavioral issues, poor performance problems in school, changes in personality (moody, cranky and/or irritable), headaches or speaking with a nasal tone.

If you suspect that your child has sleep apnea, Michigan State University Extension recommends that you consult your child’s health care provider immediately. Sleep apnea can negatively affect your child’s quality of life and left untreated it may cause serious health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

The following websites contain more information about OSA in children:

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