What is apnea?

Most people experience brief pauses in their breathing patterns. These pauses are known as apnea. Typically considered normal, these pauses in breathing occur especially during sleep, resulting in the sleeper being awakened by altered breathing.

Apnea can be in the form of reduced breathing or completely stopped breathing. There are three main types of the condition. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when something physically blocks the airway. Blockages can occur due to any number of conditions, from enlarged adenoids to tonsils.

Obstructive pauses in breathing are common in children. As many as three out of 100 preschool children may experience this during sleep, while the soft tissue of the throat is calmer. Symptoms may include color changes, snoring, restlessness, and continuous daytime sleepiness or tiredness. To treat this condition in children, surgery on the tonsils or adenoids may be required. Alternatively, children may be given a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, mask to wear while they sleep.

Very premature babies can also commonly stop breathing without warning. This is known as central apnea, and it occurs when the brain does not start or maintain normal breathing on its own. Due to the immaturity of the respiratory center in the brain, this is usually managed with some form of oxygen therapy, such as full intubation or CPAP. Ongoing care and observation through a Nursing Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, is also usually required.

Mixed apnea, a hybrid of obstructive and central respiratory pauses, occurs primarily in children and infants. The cause of this condition is usually attributed to the child's lack of control while breathing. This type of respiratory pause can occur while you are awake or at rest.

Although brief interruptions in breathing can be normal, sleep apnea in adults can also be dangerous. If breathing stops for 20 seconds or more, it is considered a health problem. People who stop breathing completely for long periods of time may require a sleep study to assess their condition. Remedies for such breathing problems generally include the same methods used for children with obstructive breathing problems. Medications for breathing disorders may also be given.

The origins of the word apnea are Greek. Translated, they mean "no wind". Other causes of apnea may include drug-induced states, trauma, a neurological disease, breath holding, or mechanical induction through suffocation or strangulation. People who experience noticeable airway restrictions should be taken to a doctor immediately.

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