Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that affects millions of Americans. It increases the risk for serious health problems like heart disease and diabetes but it is a sleep disorder most commonly associated with adults. Unfortunately, children can also have this disorder and it can cause serious problems for them in both the short and the long term.
Children with undiagnosed sleep apnea may struggle with excessive daytime sleepiness which can interfere with almost everything in their lives. It can make listening, concentrating, and learning extremely difficult. It can leave them with little energy for physical activity and contribute to behavioral problems like hyperactivity. There are also concerns that sleep apnea in childhood may contribute to cardiovascular problems throughout their lifetime and could be causing problems with normal growth.
Children need sleep to grow and develop normally and sleep apnea makes it impossible for them to get the amount of sleep their bodies require. Sleep apnea causes prolonged periods of lapses in breathing. Each of these periods is called an apnea and each apnea causes a disruption in sleep. This is the primary cause of the excessive daytime sleepiness mentioned above. Additionally, each apnea, which can last from seconds to a minute or more, deprives the body of oxygen which can have serious health consequences.
Most children with sleep apnea have obstructive sleep apnea which occurs when something, like the tonsils, blocks the airway temporarily during sleep. For many children with this type of sleep apnea, the problem can be cured with surgery that removes or eliminates the obstruction. Children can also have central sleep apnea which is caused by neurological problems related to control of breathing.
The following are signs of obstructive sleep apnea in children:
- Loud snoring during sleep
- Labored breathing during sleep
- Audible pauses, gasps, or snorts during sleep
- Absence of breath
- Restlessness during sleep
- Sleeping with the head in an unusual position
- Heavy sweating during sleep
- Difficulties in school related to behavior and attention
- Difficult to wake up in the morning
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
Sleep apnea has been connected to other serious health problems including apparent life-threatening events (ALTEs). If your child experiences any of these symptoms, seek help immediately. An ALTE occurs when a child with sleep apnea displays any of the following:
- A change in color
- A change in muscle tone
- Choking for air
If you suspect your child has sleep apnea, speak to their pediatrician and request a sleep study. Diagnosis is key to getting the disorder treated and eliminating the negative consequences that can accompany it. Your child’s doctor will determine if sleep apnea is the root of the problem and will recommend the appropriate treatment. Treatment may include surgery, medication, sleep monitoring devices, or other treatments. For many children, sleep apnea will resolve itself as they grow and further treatment or monitoring won’t be required.
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