Asthma and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are long-term respiratory disorders that affect breathing. Asthma causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways. OSA leads to upper airway obstruction.

Both asthma and OSA affect breathing. However, each has different causes, symptoms, and treatments.

There is a link between the two conditions. Having OSA may increase asthma symptoms, and people with asthma may have a higher risk of developing OSA.

Read on to learn more about asthma and OSA, treatments, and how each condition affects the other.

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Asthma is a respiratory disease in which a person’s airways become inflamed, narrowed, and swollen with the production of excess mucus. This makes it hard for an individual to breathe comfortably. Although the cause of asthma is unclear, risk factors include obesity, allergies, and having a family history of asthma.

Symptoms of asthma may include:

OSA involves periods of brief pauses in breathing during sleep. The muscles in the back of the throat relax, blocking air from passing into the lungs.

Anyone can develop OSA, but risk factors include obesity, family health history, and smoking.

Signs and symptoms of OSA include:

There are a few ways asthma and OSA appear to have links. For example, having asthma may increase a person’s risk of developing OSA.

Research involving an epidemiological study indicated that having asthma increases the risk of new-onset OSA. The incidence of developing OSA over 4 years in people with asthma was 27% compared with 16% in people who did not have asthma.

Although the reason for the apparent link between the two conditions is unclear, there are some theories. One possibility suggests OSA can cause increased inflammation in the airways, which can trigger irritation and constriction of the small airways, leading to worsening asthma symptoms.

Another link between the diseases involves risk factors. OSA and asthma share some of the same risk factors. For instance, risk factors for both OSA and asthma include obesity, rhinitis, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Each disease adversely affects the other and may impact the severity.

According to the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, OSA can cause poor asthma outcomes. OSA may also increase nighttime asthma symptoms and frequent flare-ups.

The opposite is also true, where asthma makes OSA worse. Epidemiological studies demonstrate that people with asthma more frequently report snoring and excessive daytime sleepiness. One connection between the two conditions is the chronic use of corticosteroids, especially oral steroids, which doctors may prescribe to control asthma symptoms and may increase upper airway fatty tissue, increasing the risk of OSA.

Asthma symptoms may come and go depending on exposure to triggers. One of the best ways to reduce asthma symptoms is determining triggers that cause symptoms and decrease exposure. Additional asthma treatment may include:

Bronchodilators: Bronchodilators are inhalers that include both fast-acting and long-acting medications, which relax the muscles of the airways and make breathing easier.

Steroids: Steroids in the form of pills, inhalers, or intravenous medication reduce inflammation in the lungs.

Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy involves medication that helps reduce the body’s response to allergies over time.

Without treatment, OSA can affect memory, mood, and weight. It can also increase a person’s risk of a heart attack or stroke, which is why treatment is so vital.

Treatment for OSA often includes:

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): CPAP involves wearing a nasal or face mask attached to a machine that delivers continuous air pressure to keep the upper airway open.

Oral appliances: A dentist or orthodontist fits these devices into a person’s mouth, and they wear them at night. Examples include a mandibular advancement device, the most widely used mouth device for OSA, and tongue-retaining devices that hold the tongue in place to keep the upper airway open.

Surgery: In cases where other treatments fail, surgery may be an option. The exact type of surgical procedure may vary. The goal of surgery is to correct structural abnormalities that may contribute to airway blockage.

Treating asthma and OSA may involve some trial and error. Sometimes a doctor may suggest combining treatments to reduce symptoms.

It is important to treat asthma and OSA independently.Treatment for each condition is not interchangeable, as treatment for asthma, such as medications, does not treat OSA, and CPAP does not treat an asthma attack.

However, treating one condition may have benefits for the other. For example, treating OSA may decrease overall inflammation in the body. Inflammation in the lungs occurs with asthma. If inflammation levels decrease, it may have a positive impact on swelling in the lungs and other asthma symptoms.

Individuals who have both asthma and OSA should consider seeing a lung specialist. A lung doctor has specialized training in both respiratory disorders. It is also important for a person to understand their treatment plan and follow it as prescribed.

Both asthma and OSA can lead to serious health problems. For example, severe, life threatening asthma attacks can develop. Although OSA does not usually cause a sudden life threatening event, it can also lead to serious complications.

The outlook for people with both asthma and OSA depends on getting treatment. Both conditions are manageable with proper care. An effective treatment plan helps manage both disorders and can greatly reduce serious complications.

For more information and resources on asthma, visit our dedicated hub.

OSA and asthma are highly prevalent chronic respiratory disorders. Beyond their frequent coexistence arising from their high prevalence and shared risk factors, these disorders feature a reciprocal interaction. This means that each condition impacts the severity of the other.

Healthcare professionals should strongly consider periodically screening people with asthma for OSA, particularly those who have an uncontrolled condition. A healthcare professional should discuss the importance of CPAP treatment, as it can reduce asthma morbidity and improve quality of life.