Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): Overview

What is obstructive sleep apnea and sleep disordered breathing?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is defined as pauses in breathing that frequently occur with snoring or gasping. The condition is diagnosed by an overnight sleep study.

Although it is normal for everyone to experience occasional pauses in breathing, OSA can be a problem when breathing stops frequently or for prolonged periods of time. OSA can cause a child’s oxygen levels to drop because of disrupted breathing.

Sleep-Disordered Breathing (SDB) includes all kinds of breathing problems that cause decreased airflow that disrupts sleep quality or sleep time by causing lots of “arousals” or awakenings from sleep.

What causes OSA and SDB? 

The most common associations of OSA in children are large tonsils and adenoids. These structures become a problem when a child’s throat relaxes during sleep. Enlarged tonsils and adenoids can cause an obstruction to air flow. Some kids with large tonsils and adenoids don’t have OSA, so the tonsils don’t “cause” OSA, but contribute to it.

We think that children with OSA have problems with muscle tone that keeps the throat open during sleep, even though they seem to have normal tone during the day. Besides enlarged tonsils and adenoids, other causes of OSA include obesity, craniofacial abnormalities and decreased muscle tone that can occur with children with complex medical conditions.

Who gets OSA and SBD?

OSA occurs in 1% to 5% of all children.

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