Although sleep apnea mostly affects the older population, it is also experienced by children usually under the ages three to six. Sleep apnea in children is in the same way troubling as in adults. If it remains undiagnosed and untreated, it leaves the children with learning difficulties, weak school performance, mood and behavior problems, poor interpersonal abilities, developmental delays, and worse, high blood pressure and heart problems.
A common sleep disorder, sleep apnea occurs when the person stops breathing for brief periods that average 30 seconds. It is caused by an obstruction in the airway. In children, majority of the cases of sleep apnea result from enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Some cases of enlargement are due to infection.
But in some children, facial and structural deformities cause the narrowing of the airway. It can be that the children are born with smaller jaw, larger tongue, and smaller opening of the throat. Some facial deformities are also caused by certain craniofacial syndromes such as Down Syndrome, Treacher Collins Syndrome, and Pierre Robin Sequence. Children with these syndromes have structural deformities in the jaw, nose, and mouth, and have poor muscle tone, making them more at risk for developing sleep apnea.
Tumors anywhere that affects the airway can also contribute to the development of sleep apnea, since the presence of a tumor diminishes the muscle tone and therefore causes an obstruction. Although very rare, obesity can also be a cause. The fatty cells that amass in the throat tissue result in the narrowing of the airway.
As in adults, loud and heavy snoring is always the first symptom of sleep apnea in children. But since 10 to 20% of children snore at some point, even without the presence of sleep apnea, it is important for the parents to look for other symptoms in their kids.
Other symptoms include mouth breathing, bedwetting, odd sleeping positions, extreme sweating while sleeping, hyperactivity, excessive sleepiness, short attention span, aggressiveness, and behavior problems. Other children may also do poorly in school, have learning problems, and not grow according to their age.
Unlike adults who have the tendency to get overweight, children with sleep apnea are usually thin and may experience weight loss. This is because obstruction in the airway, especially in the throat and nose area, makes eating quite uncomfortable. Burning of calories is also at a higher speed due to abnormal breathing patterns.
Since the enlargement of tonsils and adenoids is the common cause of sleep apnea in children, tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy, where enlarged tonsils and adenoids are removed, are the usual treatment.
But those who won’t benefit from such surgeries or may develop complications after going through them will be prescribed to use continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP. This is a nose mask connected to a machine that delivers pressurized air and keeps the airway open. Parents need to realize that CPAP may be a little uncomfortable to use, but some adjustments may allow the kids to get to use to it.
Sleep apnea in children requires immediate medical attention. If parents suspect their kids to have this sleep disorder, they need to promptly see a doctor or a sleep specialist. The severity of the case and identification of treatments will be based on the symptoms, medical evidence of enlargement of tonsils and adenoids, and sleep test results.