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Understanding the Relationship Between Sleep Apnea and COPD

Millions of Americans have sleep apnea or COPD.

Sleep apnea and COPD are two health conditions that affect millions of Americans. Together, they can seriously impact an individual’s health and quality of life. If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between COPD and sleep apnea, we’re here to address a few of the most frequently asked questions.

What are sleep apnea and COPD?

Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type of apnea, occurs when airflow is blocked by the throat muscles and tongue collapsing into the airway. The brain then receives a message that the body needs to breathe, awakening it from sleep to take a loud, gasping breath. These episodes can occur more than 30 times per hour. Individuals with the condition experience sleep apnea symptoms such as snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches and irritability.COPD, which stands for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is a progressive lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe. Emphysema, chronic bronchitis and refractory asthma all fall under the umbrella of COPD. COPD is the third-leading cause of death in America.

What are the similarities between COPD and sleep apnea?

In addition to impaired breathing, there are other notable similarities in the symptoms of sleep apnea and COPD. Both conditions are characterized by low blood oxygen levels, fatigue and daytime sleepiness.

Are COPD patients more likely to develop sleep apnea? 

When a patient is diagnosed with both sleep apnea and COPD, it’s known as “overlap syndrome.” Though an estimated 10 to 15 percent of COPD patients also have sleep apnea, experts note that the likelihood of developing sleep apnea is about the same for COPD patients as it is for the general population.

What are the dangers of having both conditions?

COPD and sleep apnea each pose specific health risks on their own, but together they can be even more dangerous. Individuals with sleep apnea and COPD have an increased risk of pulmonary hypertension, a higher incidence of exacerbations and higher mortality rates—not to mention a lower quality of life.

Can you use a CPAP for COPD?

man sleeping with cpap machine

There are various medications, surgeries and lifestyle changes that can help treat COPD and slow the progress of this condition. In cases of overlap syndrome, treating sleep apnea with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy can make a huge difference in quality of life. Using CPAP for COPD and sleep apnea has been shown to improve pulmonary arterial pressure, reduce COPD exacerbations and decrease the risk of mortality.Do you have COPD and sleep apnea? We’d love to hear about your personal experience. Leave us a comment on Twitter at @SoClean.