What Is the Association Between Sleep Apnea and Asthma?

sleep apnea and asthma

Sleep apnea and asthma are two relatively common breathing disorders. But did you know that they are both related? That’s right.

Sleep apnea is caused by a temporary reduction in breathing while you’re asleep and that is not normal or meant to happen. You know that you have this problem when you stop breathing while asleep or snore rather loudly. Sometimes, it also leads to coughing, gagging and choking episodes with unpleasant frequency.

A lot of people don’t know they have this problem. But the first symptom is that you wake up way too many times at night and this is causing you to have restless sleep. So, you are tired during the day no matter how long you sleep at night.

Now, not everyone with sleep apnea ends up with asthma. But those who have asthma are at a greater risk for the former. Even if not, sleep apnea has the ability to make your asthma worse. Here’s how they are connected.

What Is Asthma and Where’s the Common Ground 

Sleep apnea is officially called obstructive sleep apnea or OSA. It is a disorder where the airflow into your body is decreased which puts pressure on your heart because it does not get enough oxygen through the bloodstream.

OSA is the most severe disorder in the spectrum of sleep-related breathing problems. It is also complex and can be a chronic problem. Apart from snoring, a person with sleep apnea may also feel cognitive impairment during the day for lack of sleep and hypersomnolence along with oxygen desaturation.

Asthma, on the other hand, is also a pretty common breathing disorder that deals with some symptoms that are common with sleep apnea like airflow obstruction, inflammation, snoring, interruptions in sleep, choking while sleeping that leads to disturbed sleep that leads to daytime sleep.

The Connection between Sleep Apnea and Asthma

But apart from the symptoms of both these disorders, there is a deeper connection. Earlier, this connection was made in terms of risk and prevalence. Studies have shown that sleep apnea patients also show many symptoms of asthma and the prevalence is high. The level of prevalence is varied across studies depending on their sample size, but we know for sure that there is a connection there.

Now, asthma was supposed to be an independent disorder. Unfortunately, after doing several studies on disordered sleep patterns, experts have determined that the relationship between sleep apnea and asthma goes both ways. It turns out that asthma can cause habitual snoring on its own. 

The connection might be due to a number of overlapping risk factors or the interactions between the pathologies of upper and lower airways. But sleep apnea and asthma don’t just merely coexist.

They are both highly prevalent and sleep apnea is actually on the rise. This is particularly true among asthma patients, depending on the severity of their condition. That makes asthma a risk factor for sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea, on the other hand, actually does not result in asthma as much, but it still aggravates it. So, it’s a vicious cycle even if you have just one condition. And if that is sleep apnea, not addressing it might lead to bigger problems. Bigger than the ones you already have.

Now, apart from the risk factors, these two conditions also cause problems like gastroesophageal reflux, rhinitis and obesity. That is because sleep apnea actually increases chemicals that cause inflammation in the bloodstream. This aggravates asthma and also causes weight gain.

Course of Treatment

Luckily, there are quite a few things one can do to treat sleep apnea. The most common solution is to get a CPAP mask, but there are more ways too. That includes getting an oral appliance, which is like a retainer, or to opt for surgery should you need one.

Each of these solutions depends on the severity of the problem and what it might lead to.

Buy a CPAP Mask

This is perhaps the most popular choice and a rather simple one too. The continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP mask is meant to be worn while one is asleep. This allows a pressure of air that keeps your airways open while you sleep.

This way, your lungs get more oxygen and the smooth muscles near the airways don’t contract as much, which keeps the airway stable.

CPAP masks can be used under a specialist’s supervision to even undo the unpleasant effects of OSA. It is also good to lower the chemicals that cause inflammation, which helps the bloodstream and also any inflammation that is in the lungs.

These masks also help deal with acid reflux. But you must follow the doctor’s instructions to the ‘T’ because not doing so can make things worse.

Get an Oral Appliance

The second solution is to get an orthodontic appliance which is like a retainer. This device can do two things. One is to move your lower jaw forward so that your airway stays open while you’re asleep and two is to stop your tongue from blocking the airway.

Now, CPAP masks have a better result in controlling interrupted breathing, but if that’s not working, an oral appliance is a good alternative. You must visit a dentist to help you with the fitting if you are getting it custom made.

Opt for Surgery

Finally, as a last resort, there is surgery to treat obstructive sleep apnea. It is called a UPPP or a uvulopalatopharyngoplasty and is for patients who are not obese.

The procedure involves removing your tonsils, uvula and the soft palate. But it is not 100 percent effective all the time because some patients still need CPAP therapy afterward.

The Bottom Line

Treating OSA is not just about sorting out issues with sleep because of a breathing-related disorder but also about avoiding everyday problems like asthma.

Apart from trying to control sleep apnea, you can also try a rescue inhaler or breathing techniques to get your asthma under control. This will also help you sleep better. Getting an evaluation for both as soon as you can is a good idea.


Dan was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2017 when he was only 32 years old. He has been using a BIPAP machine for his treatment. He hopes to provide a patient's perspective on the sleep apnea experience. Dan lives in Tampa with his girlfriend and 2 dogs.

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