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Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Children

Approximately 2‑3% of children the U.S. suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is a medical condition characterized by recurrent episodes of airway obstruction during sleep, which can result in snoring and apneic episodes, or breathing pauses that may sound like choking or gasping for breath.

Causes of Sleep Apnea in Children

In children, obstructive sleep apnea can be caused by large adenoids or tonsils, nasal obstruction, syndromes associated with lower muscle tone, facial features such as a small jaw or large tongue or obesity.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

There are many symptoms to look for in pediatric sleep apnea. Symptoms should be observed both day and night.

While a child is sleeping, symptoms might include:

  • Restless sleep
  • Pauses in breathing
  • Snoring, coughing or choking
  • Sweating
  • Bed-wetting
  • Sleep terrors
  • Mouth breathing

While a child is awake, symptoms might include:

  • Poor school performance
  • Learning difficulties
  • Behavioral problems
  • Poor weight gain
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Changes in social or activity levels

Diagnosing and Treatment of Sleep Apnea

In children, a strong history provided by parents is often adequate to establish the diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea. A sleep study may be done to provide additional information for medical decision making. An examination of the neck, mouth, tongue and adenoids may also be performed.

Treatments for pediatric sleep apnea can include:

  • Medication to ease symptoms
  • Removal of tonsils and adenoids
  • CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) or BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) machines
  • Mouthpieces or dental devices

If you recognize symptoms of sleep apnea in your child, please seek medical advice from your child's primary physician or an ear, nose and throat specialist. By recognizing the symptoms early and maintaining regular check-ups, you can help prevent physical and social problems associated with long-standing sleep apnea.

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