Allergies and sleep apnea: How are they connected? Every spring, and allergy season is upon us once again. With that in mind, the blog turns its attention to the topic of sleep apnea and allergies.
In general, allergic reactions are thought to interfere with normal, healthy sleep. The logic goes like this: Allergies create nasal congestion. Nasal congestion can dry out your mouth, or block your breathing airways. Both of these factors can lead to “apneas” – the stops in breathing overnight that characterize obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Therefore, allergies and sleep apnea can be connected if ongoing allergic reactions are blocking your sleep on a regular basis.
Allergies can have other effects on our ability to get a good night’s sleep, too. Some allergic reactions swell the tonsils or adenoids, causing them to grow larger – again, potentially causing a blocked airway that can lead to sleep apnea.
So, while allergies may not specifically cause sleep apnea, there does seem to be a connection. As a study published in the American Review of Respiratory Disease stated, “in patients with allergic rhinitis, obstructive sleep apneas are longer and more frequent” than in patients without those allergic conditions.1
It follows, then, that taking steps to reduce allergic reactions can help increase the quality of sleep: “Decreasing nasal congestion with nasal steroids may improve sleep, daytime fatigue, and the quality of life of patients with AR [allergic rhinitis],” as the authors of a 1998 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology put it.2
Most researchers stop short of actually concluding that treating allergies can prevent sleep apnea, though. A 2011 study published in the European Archives of Oto-rhino-laryngology states that, while “nasal steroids could improve the subjective quality of sleep, and may be useful for patients with mild OSA,” such allergy treatments are “not by themselves an adequate treatment for most OSA patients.”3
Allergies and sleep apnea: The CPAP connection
However, when discussing allergies and sleep apnea, another factor often comes into play: Allergic reactions can disrupt the CPAP therapy often used to treat sleep apnea. (What is CPAP? Find out here.)
Manufacturers of CPAP masks and sleep apnea therapy equipment have taken steps to help you get around potential problems caused by the presence of both sleep apnea and allergies. For instance, if allergies make breathing through your nose difficult, you’re more likely to experience effective treatment from a full face mask than from a nasal pillows mask. While a nasal mask only delivers air through your nose, a full face mask covers your mouth and nose, ensuring that you still receive air whether your nose is congested or not.
In addition, advanced CPAP technology in the form of APAP – or automatic positive airway pressure, as we recently discussed – can help people who have both allergies and sleep apnea. How? Allergies can cause your breathing to fluctuate throughout the night, and APAP is designed to deliver different amounts of air as needed to keep up with those fluctuations.
If your allergies are interfering with your sleep apnea therapy, we encourage you to talk to your doctor or sleep therapist about possible solutions, such as switching to a different CPAP mask, or a different type of PAP therapy machine.