Pediatric sleep apnea is already a widespread problem among children in America and, as childhood obesity rates increase, the instances of sleep apnea in children seem certain to rise as well.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) results from partial or complete blockage of the airway during sleep. When breathing is disrupted while sleep, the body perceives that it is choking, resulting in slowed heart rate, increased blood pressure, a decrease in oxygen levels in the blood, arousal of the brain, and disruption of sleep.
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, approximately 2-4 percent of the pediatric population has obstructive sleep apnea.
That percentage seems almost certain to increase given that overweight children are more likely to develop a sleep breathing disorder, due to fat deposits around the neck and throat that can narrow the airway, and childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past three decades. Data from the CDC indicates that the obesity rate in children increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent by 2012.
The consequences of childhood sleep apnea can be significant, resulting in the following potential issues:
- Symptoms that mimic ADHD or lead to the development of ADHD, as children exhibit moodiness, inattention, and disruptions both at home and at school
- Potential bed-wetting, due to increased nighttime urine production caused by OSA
- Slow growth and development, caused by low production of growth hormones due to OSA
- Increased risk of obesity, due to daytime fatigue or increased resistance to insulin
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
A child may suffer from OSA or another sleep breathing disorder if any of these symptoms is observed, such as frequent loud snoring, long pauses in breathing, restless sleeping or significant tossing and turning, night sweats, chronic mouth breathing during sleep, or changes in mood, misbehavior or school performance.
If a child exhibits any symptoms associated with OSA, a sleep evaluation should be the first step in the treatment process. Sadly, OSA is commonly overlooked in children, meaning they are treated for other disorders that only mask their symptoms, instead of taking care of the source of the problem. Diagnosing and treating OSA in children should be a collaborative effort between physicians and dentists, which helps provide the best care for the next generation.