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What is obstructive sleep apnea?

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Dear Doctors,

My brother, who has snored for years, was recently diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. I snore pretty loudly, as well. What is obstructive sleep apnea? How do I know if I might be at risk?


Dear BuzzSaw,

When we snore, the tissue in our nose and the back of our throat vibrates and makes noise. That tissue – instead of simply vibrating – can partially or completely collapse, blocking the passage of air to our lungs. The temporary stoppages in breathing that result are called apneas. Since they occur from obstructions in our airway while we sleep, the condition is called obstructive sleep apnea(OSA).

Symptoms of OSA include snoring, fatigue and sleepiness during the day. Your friends or family members also may notice that you stop breathing while you sleep. Children with obstructive sleep apnea have difficulty concentrating, may perform poorly in school, and sometimes are labeled as being lazy or diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.

Physicians care about OSA for both its short-term and long-term consequences. In the short term, people with OSA frequently are sleepy during the day. This not only makes for poor quality of life, but it has been shown to dramatically increase the risk for car crashes. In the long term, OSA has been associated with an increase in high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, stroke, heart attack and sudden death.

OSA usually is diagnosed by a test called polysomnography, also known as a sleep study. A sleep technologist monitors the patient while he or she sleeps, looking for signs of obstructive sleep apnea or other sleep-related problems.

In children, untreated OSA can lead to permanent changes in the way the nose, throat and mouth develop. These changes lead to the child having OSA as an adult.

Fortunately, OSA is treatable. In most adults, OSA can be treated by a device that delivers a small amount of air pressure to the nose and throat while you sleep. In children, removing the tonsils and adenoids usually cures the condition.

Thank you for your question!

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