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What You Need to Know About COPD and Sleep Apnea

Lungs made out of charcoal dust with a cigarette below

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), an umbrella term for a number of progressive lung diseases, is a serious condition that affects 30 million Americans. Characterized by symptoms like breathlessness, coughing, wheezing and tightness in the chest, COPD is commonly caused by smoking and environmental factors. It’s the third-leading cause of death in the United States.Living with COPD is difficult enough on its own. Imagine dealing with another condition on top of that, which also impairs breathing and quality of life. This is what it’s like to have COPD and sleep apnea, known throughout the medical community as “overlap syndrome.”

Sleep Apnea and COPD

While sleep apnea and COPD are distinct health conditions with their own sets of causes, risk factors and symptoms, they do have some similarities. For example, COPD patients often have trouble sleeping, and thus experience common symptoms of sleep apnea like fatigue and daytime sleepiness.According to the Lung Institute, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of individuals with COPD also have sleep apnea. Xavier Soler, Assistant Director of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at UC San Diego, clarifies “the prevalence of OSA is similar in patients with COPD as in the general population,” but warns that individuals with COPD and sleep apnea “have an increased risk of death and more hospitalizations from acute exacerbations.”Furthermore, research has shown that there’s a greater risk of prolonged oxygen saturation and pulmonary hypertension in patients with COPD and sleep apnea. In one 2004 study, researchers found that 86% of participants with COPD and sleep apnea had pulmonary hypertension, compared to 16% in participants who only had sleep apnea.

Managing Sleep Apnea and COPD with a CPAP Machine

African American man sleeping with a CPAP machine

Considering the dangers of sleep apnea and COPD, it’s important to receive a proper diagnosis and begin treatment immediately. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy has long been known as the gold-standard treatment for managing sleep apnea, and research has shown that using a CPAP machine can improve the quality of life for patients with both sleep apnea and COPD. CPAP therapy can decrease the risk of mortality, reduce COPD exacerbations and improve pulmonary artery pressure in cases of sleep apnea and COPD.That said, it is possible CPAP therapy alone may not be enough, and doctors may recommend additional treatments or lifestyle changes.If you have COPD and you believe you may be exhibiting symptoms of sleep apnea, be sure to talk to your doctor about getting tested for this sleep condition so you can be treated for overlap syndrome as soon as possible.