COPD and Sleep Apnea: Is There a Link?

Breathing can be hard at times when you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also called COPD. It might be even harder when you have obstructive sleep apnea at the same time.

Some people think that having COPD makes you more likely to get sleep apnea. But recent studies have found the chances of getting sleep apnea are about the same whether you have COPD or not.

Still, if you happen to have both conditions, it’s important to know how one affects the other and the steps you can take to make your breathing and your life easier.

First, it’s good to learn a little more about both conditions.

What is COPD?

COPD makes breathing hard because of clogged or narrow airways.

You may have heard of emphysema (which damages air sacs in your lungs) and chronic bronchitis (ongoing inflammation in the tubes that bring air to your lungs), which are both diseases that fall under the umbrella of COPD.

COPD is usually caused by smoking or breathing in secondhand smoke or other air pollutants. There is no cure. It tends to progress over time, meaning it gets worse. But there are often ways to manage symptoms.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

This happens when your breathing stops briefly on and off throughout the night. Each pause may last only a few seconds. Some people with apnea have hundreds of these interruptions every night.

It has many causes, but the most common one happens when the muscles in the back of your throat relax too much while you’re sleeping. They can block the airway in your throat.

People with sleep apnea tend to snore. They also gasp for breath when their breathing pauses.

When the Conditions Overlap

When you have both conditions, it’s called “overlap syndrome.” About 10% to 15% of people with COPD have overlap syndrome. The combo raises your chances of having:

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Poor-Quality Sleep

Sleeping is a challenge for anyone with COPD. Breathing can be hard lying down. Your chest tightens.

You might need to go to the bathroom throughout the night. When you wake up, you may have a nagging cough. Apnea on top of COPD makes your quality of sleep even poorer.

Heart Complications

COPD can raise your chances of having a life-threatening heart attack.

Sleep apnea can also raise your chances of the following problems:

Because COPD and obstructive sleep apnea can cause heart problems, you should talk with your doctor about what you can do to manage overlap syndrome.

How Do I Manage Overlap Syndrome?

If you have COPD, you should be doing everything you can to keep your lungs working as well as possible. If you snore or your bed partner says you gasp for air while sleeping, get tested for sleep apnea as well.

This test usually involves an overnight stay in a sleep clinic. Your breathing will be monitored while you sleep. This will tell your doctor whether you had bouts of apnea. If you did, it will tell how many and how long they lasted.

A common sleep apnea treatment may be very helpful if you have COPD, too.

It’s called continuous positive airway pressure therapy, or CPAP. You keep a small machine by your bedside that pumps air through a tube into your lungs. You breathe the air through a facemask or a small device that fits in your nostrils. The mild air pressure helps your airways stay open.

There are other ways to help manage this overlap problem. These include:

Keep in mind that just because you have COPD doesn’t mean you will get sleep apnea. But if you do, it’s important that you work with your doctors to manage both problems as well as you can.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on March 14, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Respiratory Health Association: “COPD and Sleep Apnea.”

International Journal of Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease: “Association of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and obstructive sleep apnea consequences.”

Mayo Clinic: “COPD: Overview,” “Emphysema,” “Bronchitis.”

National Sleep Foundation: “Sleep Apnea.”

Lung Institute: “COPD and Sleep Apnea.”

European Society of Cardiology: “Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease Increases the Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death.”

American Heart Association: “Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease, Stroke.”

Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: “Impact of CPAP use and age on mortality in patients with combined COPD and obstructive sleep apnea: the overlap syndrome.”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “How is Sleep Apnea Treated?” “What is CPAP?”

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